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NIH advocates gear up for budget fight

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) would see its budget worries eased if a long-time political champion gets his way.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who leads the Senate panel that oversees the NIH, introduced legislation on 24 July that would ensure that the NIH’s budget never drops below its current US$29.9 billion. The bill also proposes that Congress increase the NIH’s budget by up to 10% for the next two years, and 5% each year for the next five years. By 2021, the agency’s budget would rise to $46.2 billion.

The legislation is unusual in that it sets a minimum level for NIH funding regardless of the government’s total budget for a given year. That approach could pit the NIH against other agencies when money is scarce, a scenario that some agency supporters worry is not so hypothetical. A 2011 law known as the Budget Control Act caps total government spending to 2021 (although the caps have since been relaxed for 2014 and 2015).

The Harkin bill would allow increases for NIH beyond this cap. Some advocacy groups say that NIH is not the only biomedical agency that is in need of a boost. “The painful effects of austerity span beyond NIH across the entire health continuum,”  Emily Holubowich, senior vice-president of the Coalition for Health Funding wrote to Nature. “We support a balanced, comprehensive, permanent solution to end this era of austerity for all public health and core government functions.”

The legislation’s future is uncertain, however. Harkin is retiring at the end of this year, and Congress is working on a schedule shortened by the federal election in November. Lawmakers are not expected to finish work on a funding plan for the 2015 budget year — which begins on 1 October — until after the election.

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