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Senate bill disappoints NIH advocates

Posted on behalf of Meredith Wadman

In a telling sign of tight fiscal times, a prominent advocate for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US Senate today offered the biggest funding increase he could muster for 2013: a 0.33% increase, amounting to US$100 million more for the biomedical agency than it will receive this year.

The $30.723 billion NIH figure in a 2013 spending bill crafted by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds the NIH, is also $100 million above the February request from President Barack Obama, who asked Congress to keep the agency’s funding flat next year.

The news was met with muted dismay by research advocates. Although “gratified” that Harkin managed to cobble together an increase, however modest, “our nation cannot sustain its global leadership in research and development if the NIH is funded in dribs and drabs,” John Porter, chairman of the advocacy group Research!America said in a statement. (In better times, Porter, a former congressman, chaired the House spending subcommittee that funds the NIH.)

The American Heart Association has urged the equivalent House subcommittee to include in its companion bill a “robust” increase for the NIH.

The Senate number is part of a bill that was voted on today in the Senate subcommittee. (A summary is available here.)

There, the panel’s ten Democrats approved the huge bill funding the departments of labour, health and human services and education in 2013, over the objections of all seven Republicans on the subcommittee.

The vote is an incremental step in a highly partisan process that isn’t likely to end until after November’s presidential election: the hashing out of a spending bill that is increasingly being held hostage to the 2010 health-care reform law, parts of which it funds. Most Republicans oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and those at the hearing made it clear that this opposition was their first and most important reason for voting against the bill.

“I will not vote for a … bill that includes Affordable Care Act funding as this bill does,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the subcommittee.

Harkin had his response ready: “I recognize that funding for the Affordable Care Act is a big stumbling block for the other side. But it’s the law, so I have a responsibility as chairman of this subcommittee to ensure that the HHS has the funding it needs to implement it.”

The Senate subcommittee bill, among other things, contains a $28 million cut to the National Children’s Study, to $165 million as Obama initially proposed in February. It does not place any conditions on how the study is conducted, Harkin said after the hearing. A move by the NIH to dramatically change the study’s sampling method has come under fire this spring.

The $100 million in new funding, if it survives the Congressional wrangling of the coming months, would cover $80 million in new Alzheimer’s research funding at the NIH that agency director Francis Collins and his boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, have very publicly committed to provide in 2013.

Harkin said that the $100 million was not provided with that use in mind, although the agency “could” use it to that end.

The US Administration had initially proposed to draw the new Alzheimer’s money from a public-health prevention fund in Sebelius’s office. Harkin has adamantly opposed this, and reiterated today that the new Alzheimer’s money “is not coming through the Prevention Fund”.

Also evident at today’s hearing was continued opposition from rural state senators on both sides of the aisle to a proposed $50.5-million cut in a programme that builds up biomedical research infrastructure in states that have had low success rates at winning NIH grants. The Institutional Development Awards programme was boosted by $47 million, to $276 million, between 2011 and 2012.  Collins and the Administration say that was intended as a one-time shot in the arm to the programme; rural state law-makers led by Representative Denny Rehberg, the Montana Republican who is Harkin’s counterpart in the House, insist that it should be permanent.

Speaking against the cut at today’s hearing were Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat, Louisiana) and Senator Thad Cochran (Republican, Mississippi).

The next step in the spending bill’s long journey through the Capitol Hill quagmire comes on Thursday, when the full Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the funding measure.

A spokeswoman for the parallel House appropriations subcommittee that funds the NIH and commonly produces its own bill with a separate funding figure for the agency did not respond to an e-mail asking when that subcommittee would produce a bill.


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