Bridging the Gap: How ASH Bridge Grant Recipients are Advancing Research

Biomedical researchers are operating in a tepid – lukewarm, at best – funding environment. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major source of research funding, has experienced across-the-board funding cuts and a steady budget decline, from a peak of $31.2 billion in 2010 to $30.15 billion in 2014. Over the past decade, research grants awarded by the NIH have also declined 20 percent – leading some young researchers in the lurch or scrambling for scant remaining research dollars.

In 2012, ASH launched its Bridge Grant program to help hematologists continue their critical blood disease research amid severe funding reductions. This grant program supports ASH members whose R01 (or equivalent) grant proposals could not be funded by the NIH, despite earning high scores. As of December 2015, 74 researchers have received one of the awards.
Recipients receive a total of $150,000 over one year, providing short-term relief to help talented hematology investigators continue their critical work while obtaining additional data to strengthen their grant applications.

Research projects supported by ASH’s latest bridge grants encompass a wide range of basic, clinical, and translational hematology research, from developing new treatments for infant leukemia to exploring the role of a protein in malaria infection.

ASH Clinical News asked some of the most recent round of winners how dwindling funding has affected their careers and how their research has changed.


Silke Paust, PhD
Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX

How does NIH funding affect your career?

NIH funding is essential to my career. Tenure-track professors are required to cover a percentage of their salary with NIH funding, and the associated overhead is needed to support their institute and department. The funding allows me to support students, post-doctoral associates, staff, and their experiments, and to contribute to the quality of my research environment through the provision of overhead.

Why did you apply for an ASH Bridge Grant?

I applied for a Bridge Grant because my initial NIH RO1 application on the same topic was favorably scored, but not funded. My reviewers made many helpful comments, but some of the required experimentation for a resubmission will take time and resources to complete. The ASH Bridge Grant is the perfect award for this because funding, once granted, is available quickly, and the amount is substantial and supports elaborate research – even approaches in animal models, which are costly. Further, the demonstration of funding on a project increases the likelihood that additional funding will be granted in the future, by demonstrating that experts in the field have already once concluded that the work we are doing is important.

How have you adjusted your research practices in this funding environment?

At my institution, I have noticed that more graduate student hopefuls are competing for fewer graduate training spots, in part because the number of students accepted into a graduate program are dependent on the number of faculty with funding, as is the number of available training spots.

When I started my tenure-track assistant professorship, I expected to spend a significant amount of my time doing bench work in the laboratory. I realized pretty quickly that this approach would not allow me to meet my goal of 25 grant submissions for my first year as faculty – a goal that I based on the experience of colleagues who had been awarded significant funding in their first three years of their faculty appointments. With the approval of my department chair, I hired senior scientists to work in my laboratory, who work well independently, which freed me up to focus on mentoring, teaching, and grant writing.

I attended workshops and seminars that focus on how to run a lab effectively, how to mentor staff well, and how to organize time efficiently. Further, I meet frequently with my department chair and senior collaborators for mentorship and advice on my responsibilities as a new principal investigator. I consider their advice invaluable.

Peter Kurre, MD
Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR

How does NIH funding affect your career?

Even as NIH funding has declined, it remains a cornerstone for credibility among peers and arguably a litmus test for young investigators joining the field. Accordingly, it feeds into decision making about promotion and impacts funding of grant applications and chances for non-NIH funding sources. The five-year NIH grant cycles provide stability for my career and my research team that is often elusive with shorter funding cycles by philanthropic foundations.

How will things change for you now that NIH funding is being further reduced? 

NIH funding cuts have devastated many mid-career scientists and their research programs. This includes many friends and colleagues at my institution and an end does not appear to be in sight. Declining funds have created additional problems in supporting long-term research associates and PhD-level research scientists who do not run their own lab, even when their skills at the bench are critical to cutting-edge science and in teaching hands-on skills.

From my standpoint as a role model, the funding crisis has served to severely discourage young people from considering careers in science. Among trainees with medical degrees it has led to a brain drain in the clinic; fellowship trainees no longer seem to consider careers at the translational interface of bench and bedside.

How are you adjusting your research practice?

The most ambitious and out-of-the-box projects no longer seem a good fit for NIH’s grant applications and increasingly conservative review process, which now seems to require multiple published papers and extensive preliminary data.

The net effect of decreased funding, for me, is that it has become harder to plan ahead financially as I hire personnel and trainees that deserve multi-year commitments.

Athar Chishti, PhD
Tufts University, Medford, MA

How does NIH funding affect your career?

NIH funding is the cornerstone of the American biomedical enterprise, and is particularly critical for investigators working at the research-intensive medical institutions, where the principal investigator’s salary recovery and graduate students’ stipends are supported by such grants. A lapse of funding leads to the loss of experienced staff and reagents, thus adversely affecting the ability of experienced investigators to train the next generation of biomedical researchers.

My competing renewal R01 grant was scored just outside the funding payline; this loss of funding threatened to dismantle a well-established hematology research program on the pathobiology of red blood cells.

Why did you apply for an ASH Bridge Grant?

Because of the relatively short duration of funding cycles, principal investigators spend an inordinate amount of time writing grants. The constant pressure to seek funding negatively affects the training of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, as well as creativity and innovation. Moreover, this model discourages students from pursuing basic research academic career paths.

Carolyn A. Felix, MD
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

Why did you apply for an ASH Bridge Grant?

My future as a physician-scientist is critically dependent on being able to regain federal funding from the NIH – both in terms of carrying on with the research efforts of my lab and in supporting my trainees. I applied for a Bridge Grant to gain foundational support as I continue my research in developing a therapeutic strategy for infant acute lymphocytic leukemia to collect key preliminary data to revise my R01. Federal funding has either remained flat or decreased over the last decade while the number of applications has increased significantly. ASH provides a critical pathway to continue research when it is becoming more and more difficult to get funding from the NIH.

How are you adjusting your research practice in this decreased funding environment?

With fewer funding sources, it takes much longer to get important research projects off the ground. Researchers are looking for more creative avenues in seeking funding and relying on non-profits or other funding sources for their research.

A number of proactive programs are in place or are being initiated at an institutional level to address the current funding climate. These include an increasing trend in the formation of self-organizing groups to review and provide internal critiques of grants well in advance of submission deadlines.

The current funding climate is still adversely impacting productivity because inordinate amounts of time are spent preparing grants, as opposed to generating new and exciting data and publishing results, and this remains the only avenue to succeed in getting funded. This ultimately has the potential to force researchers and institutions to make difficult choices regarding which projects will continue when all have high potential to change the outcome of diseases in affected patients.


Raise the Caps!

While the ASH Bridge Grant program is designed to provide short-term relief to talented researchers, in the long term, continued investment in NIH is necessary to keep biomedical research moving forward.

“When NIH does not have the adequate funds to support medical research, science loses,” said ASH President David A. Williams, MD. “When scientists aren’t funded, they spend more time applying for alternative grant funding than on scientific research and discovery, and some must reduce the size or close their laboratories completely.”

Unfortunately, NIH’s ability to support promising research has been seriously hampered by a decade of flat funding, followed by sequestration cuts that have dramatically slashed the agency’s budget and kept budget caps tight, threatening medical research.

To fight for increased NIH funding, ASH proudly co-sponsored the Rally for Medical Research Capitol Hill Day on September 17, 2015 – a National Day of Action where health-care agency delegates gathered to voice their support for increasing the NIH’s budget for biomedical research.

All members of Congress, including those who support funding increases for NIH, need to hear from their constituents about the negative impact that cuts in funding have had (and may continue to have) on hematology research. This will not take much time, but will have a huge impact. Visit www.hematology.org/Advocacy for information about how you can help raise awareness about the need for increased funding or contact ASH Legislative Advocacy Manager Tracy Roades ([email protected]) with any questions.

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