Another Way to Break the NIH Pipeline: Shift More Money to SBIR/STTR Programs

In keeping with the Broken Pipeline theme (see ScienceBloglings Greg, Coturnix, and Drug Monkey), this letter to Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) from the Coalition for the Life Sciences about his efforts to shift more funding to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs seems timely (italics mine):

I am writing on behalf of the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy (JSC) to express our concerns regarding S. 1932 and its intent to double the percentage of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget earmarked for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
The SBIR/STTR programs were established at the NIH with the goal of helping to transform the basic laboratory and patient-oriented research conducted by NIH-funded academic scientists into important applications, by funding competitive grants to relatively small, for-profit laboratories around the country. The JSC believes that the SBIR/STTR programs have become an important component of the NIH mission to advance public health through science. However, we contend that the case for doubling the SBIR/STTR set-aside from its current 2.5% level to 5% is not convincing and that the proposed change would adversely affect the ability of the NIH to support other important components of its portfolio at a time when the agency’s spending power is shrinking.
As you no doubt know, since the doubling of the NIH budget ended in 2003, funding for the NIH has failed to keep pace with biomedical inflation. As a result, in the intervening years, NIH funding has lost more than 12% of its purchasing power. With a continued rise in the number of grant applications from academic investigators, the lack of recent budgetary growth at the NIH has driven the success rates for those investigators, new and old, to unacceptably low levels. Thus, while applications for NIH research project grants have increased by 32% from 2003 to 2006, the number of awards has dropped by 12% and the overall success rate for applicants has fallen from an excess of 30% to 20% or lower depending on the Institute.
In contrast, the number of new grant applications submitted to the NIH for the SBIR/STTR programs has decreased by 40% in the same period. Because of the mandatory 2.5% set-aside, the SBIR/STTR programs have been awarding grants to applicants whose proposals scored significantly lower in peer review than many applications from academic investigators that could not be funded. On average, SBIR/STTR award applicants received priority scores of 189, and it is very common for a Phase 1 grant to receive a score of above 250. (In contrast, the average priority score required for funding a research project grant in 2006 was 151. ) [Mad Biologist: lower scores are better.]
In light of this situation, any increase in the percentage of the NIH budget earmarked for support of the SBIR/STTR programs would diminish the already scarce NIH funds available for investigators in other categories, and such increases would likely reduce the overall quality of work supported by the NIH. For these reasons, we urge you to reconsider S. 1932. Furthermore, we recommend that before any changes are made in the allocation of resources for the NIH’s SBIR/STTR programs, a review of those programs should be conducted.

It’s bad enough that the NIH budget isn’t keeping pace with medical inflation, but funding sub-par proposals when some panels are drastically underfunded (less than 12%) is ridiculous. I think this also puts the lie to the idea that that biomedical companies need government funding to develop products–they’re walking away from the funding.
More about that later….

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5 Responses to Another Way to Break the NIH Pipeline: Shift More Money to SBIR/STTR Programs

  1. Tex says:

    In my experience, most of the SBIR proposals I have seen, including ones that get funded, are borderline scams. Even if there are some legimate SBIR initiatives out there somewhere, moving money from basic research to these allegedly more applied projects is like eating our seed corn. In a few years there won’t be any novel findings to commercialize.

  2. Michael Schmidt says:

    This is undoubtedly an offshoot of market fundamentalism, the belief that private business is better at everything. Well, it’s not. Especially in this case.

  3. Michael Schmidt says:

    I can also imagine a streak of anti-intellectualism about it, too–so what if these academics get higher scores on their applications? It’s just academics patting each other on the back, disadvantaging all the real people, the simple people, the business people.

  4. Eric says:

    It seems that congress doesn’t understand the importance of basic research, and it certainly doesn’t plan for the health of the NIH over long periods of time (the boom of the 90’s leading to the current bust being even more difficult). My fear is that funding from the NIH is going to become so constrained that a majority of basic research will just be done elsewhere. Hopefully I’ll still be able to write my articles in English in 40 years (assuming I’m still writing).

  5. mirc says:


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