National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus, MD, describes effects of the current budget constraints and the risks posed by potential deeper sequestration cuts in January.

If sequestration, the automatic federal spending cuts triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011, does kick in next January, National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding of new grant applications may drop by as much as 40%, estimates NCI Director Harold Varmus, MD.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC, in September, Varmus explained that although sequestration would lower NCI (and overall NIH) budgets by only around 8%, new grant approvals may suffer a dramatic drop because most of NCI's $5-billion budget is committed to current investigations and personnel. “I have a lot of checks to write before I can start to write checks for new investigations,” he said.

Sequestration “would be very damaging to biomedical research,” he added. “I don't like it and I assume it won't happen,” as Congress works to find a budget compromise by year's end that would prevent the automatic spending ax.

Varmus noted that NCI's effective buying power already has dropped by one fifth since 2003, and the success rate for grant applications has fallen to an all-time low of 14%.

“The pace of research is slower than it could be and should be, mostly because we are unable to fund all the people who have good ideas,” the NCI director remarked. “It's always hard to predict what ideas will bear fruit.”

With more stable funding for biomedical research available in other countries, “we are running the risk of losing leadership to Europe and parts of Asia,” warned Varmus, who headed the NIH from 1993 to 1999.

One consequence of the ongoing budget crunch is “an inherent aversion to risk by grant applicants and peer review panels,” he said. “There's a tendency to support safe science rather than revolutionary science.”

Another byproduct is that researchers experience “severe feelings of competition and stress, feelings that transmit “unfortunately” to young trainees or foreigners who might want to come here and settle,” Varmus said. He added, however, that he strongly encourages young cancer researchers to stick with the field, because “things will get better and the science is so good and so exciting.”

For more news on cancer research, visit Cancer Discovery online at