Steven Houser, Ph.D., chairs AHA’s national research committee. Photo courtesy of Temple University School of Medicine

Steven Houser, Ph.D., chairs AHA’s national research committee. (Photo courtesy of Temple University School of Medicine)

Dwindling scientific research funding from the federal government means more researchers are requesting money from the American Heart Association, which often has to turn away good research projects.

The research funding budget for the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest underwriter of biomedical research, doubled between 1998 and 2003 — from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion. But it then shrunk by a fifth over the next decade after adjusting for inflation, according to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

That means many scientists are now turning to the AHA, which spent roughly $145 million last year on the most promising research involving heart disease and stroke. Since the 2008 recession, demand for research money from the AHA has climbed to an all-time high, with 6,190 grant applications submitted to the AHA in fiscal year 2014 — a 40 percent spike in the past five years.

“We’ve seen a continued increase in submissions over the same period that NIH has decreased its spending,” said Marco Di Buono, Ph.D., AHA’s vice president of science, research and education.

The overwhelming demand forced AHA to turn away $192 million in worthwhile research projects last year.

Apart from important discoveries potentially being delayed, talented researchers are also stagnating without the funds to keep working.

In 2014, the AHA funded nearly 1,000 research studies — and also turned away hundreds more research projects deemed “highly meritorious.”

The problem is getting worse as application numbers steadily climb, Di Buono said. He noted that the funding gap continues to widen even as AHA — the nation’s largest funder of heart disease and stroke research outside the federal government — has increased its total spending on research in each of the past three years.

The funding gap is not unique to the AHA. At the American Cancer Society, the largest not-for-profit funder of cancer research in the U.S. behind the government, nearly $95 million was awarded to outside researchers in 2014. Yet another $134 million in research council-approved projects went unfunded.

“The need for research support from non-governmental sources like the American Cancer Society is critical at these times,” said T.J. Koerner, Ph.D., the nonprofit’s director of research information management for extramural research. “Advocating for more federal funding is part of our mission, but having the American Cancer Society as a source of financial support for cancer research and training is crucial for facilitating the influx of new ideas.”

Steven Houser, Ph.D., chair of AHA’s national research committee, calls the gap “painful.”

“There are good ideas that are going untested because there’s just not enough money,” said Houser, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Temple University School of Medicine. “That worries me.”

The AHA research committee is now in the early stages of trying to figure out why the gap exists and solutions to help narrow it, said Houser. They are starting by evaluating the AHA fellowship programs that provide research assistance and training to graduate students and young scientists.

“How many people did we train, where did they go, what was the effectiveness of the money we spent on those folks?” Houser asked. “From there, the question becomes, how many people should we actually train to be cardiovascular scientists of the future?”

The committee may find that as more AHA fellows are being trained for careers in academia, they face shrinking prospects for landing coveted faculty appointments and getting the external funding needed to sustain such a career. A 2012 report from a NIH advisory committee found there is an oversupply of young biomedical researchers, a consequence of the NIH doubling its budget more than a decade ago.

“Unless everyone’s investments in biomedical research keep pace with the increasing number of bright minds proposing great research, we will continue to face a funding gap,” Di Buono said.

To help address some of these challenges, the AHA is expanding its research efforts beyond the traditional grants program in which investigators submit unsolicited grant requests.

Take the new Strategically Focused Research Networks that AHA launched last July. Bringing together research teams from different institutions to study problems related to heart disease and stroke, the networks will be infused with $45 million over the next several years to take a closer look at prevention, high blood pressure and health disparities. A network focusing on women and another on heart failure will launch in upcoming years.

“If we could do the right studies and learn the right things, we could have a tremendous impact on people’s health,” said Houser. “That’s what the research networks are trying to do.”

Also launched in 2014 was the AHA-funded Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study, or CVGPS, a five-year, $30-million initiative to speed the discovery of personalized approaches to prevent and treat cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

These and other scientific ventures allow the AHA to build its research enterprise through initiative-specific investments, Di Buono said.

“Although we may always be forced to leave good research on the table,” Di Buono said, “we are investing in a growing number of projects that have the potential for significant impact in cardiovascular disease and stroke in our lifetime.”