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Bridge funding ‘keeps the research going’ for promising science

Emory University hematology scientist Renhao Li had received a decade’s worth of funding from the National Institutes of Health for his platelet storage research — then suddenly his funding dried up.

The qualifying scores for his grant remained high, but he just missed the mark to get funded again from NIH. Rather than placing the brakes on his research, Li was able to secure $150,000 in funding from the American Society of Hematology’s “Bridge Grants” program, which helped continue his research as he reapplied for NIH funding.

Such programs will likely play an even more important role for researchers, argues society president Dr. Kenneth Anderson, as these funding gaps widen.

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The NIH is now facing deeper proposed funding cuts than ever before: The Trump administration seeks to slash 20 percent of the agency’s budget.

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It’s time for academic institutions, medical societies, and foundations to step up and build out bridge funding programs to help bolster the billions of dollars in lost research that’s looming, Anderson said.

“I think that the [Society of Hematology’s] bridge program is a model for how other nonprofit organizations or foundations could supplement NIH funding,” Anderson said.

The society launched its bridge funding program in 2012, with the intention of funding promising research grants that missed NIH funding by a hair. That is, their grant proposals received strong scores by reviewers, but they just missed the cut.

The group’s foundation set aside $9 million that year to dole out $150,000 one-year grants to hematology researchers. Since 2013, it’s given out 82 such grants.

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“The important message here: This program has allowed the momentum to be continued so that we can exploit this unprecedented time in science,” Anderson said.

NIH funding has slowly fallen in the past decade.

About 65 percent of the bridge grantees from the society were eventually able to secure funding from the NIH or from another large foundation — so it serves well, in essence, as a stopgap. About $5.3 million such grants were awarded to researchers, who subsequently received $32 million in NIH funding after resubmitting their proposals.

The hematology society isn’t the only organization with a bridge program. The Medical University of South Carolina, for instance, makes bridge funding grants of $60,000 to its researchers. The return on investment has been impressive, said Craig Crosson, the senior associate dean for research at the university. It’s given out about $1.5 million thus far, and that’s led to about $15 million of further funding from other institutions.

“The key here is not letting the program collapse, so that you’re not starting from zero,” Crosson said. “It’s much easier to keep research going than to rebuild everything.”

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Institutions around the country have similar programs, including University of Washington, Boston University, and many others.

Of course, these programs are small. They offer “just a drop in the bucket” in funding, Anderson said, when placed up against the looming $6 billion NIH budget cut.

“The benefit that NIH funding is delivering back to the American people is truly staggering,” Crosson said — in terms of product development, improved health care, and quality of life. “To me, that’s what we’re really trying to keep going in the face of some very challenging times for research funding.”

Meghana Keshavan can be reached at Meghana.Keshavan@statnews.com. Follow Meghana on Twitter @megkesh