Supporters of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) just got what passes for good news in Washington DC’s current climate of fiscal austerity: the US Senate subcommittee that funds the biomedical agency voted today to boost its budget by nearly US$2 billion, to $31 billion in 2014.
The proposed budget, part of a broader spending bill , would increase top-line NIH spending from the current level of $29.15 billion to $30.955 billion, just shy of the $31.1 billion that President Barack Obama requested in April. The increase would include $84 million new dollars for Alzheimer’s disease research at NIH’s National Institute on Aging and $40 million for the much-watched Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative announced by the White House in April.
The Senate panel would also quintuple, to $50 million, funding for the Cures Acceleration Network, an effort by NIH’s new translational medicine centre to speed bench discoveries to the bedside. And the bill would extend to other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services a requirement that is now operative only at NIH: that researchers deposit their taxpayer-funded manuscripts in a publicly accessible database.
The proposal also includes $10 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reinstitute research on the causes and prevention of gun violence. And, departing from the Obama budget request, it includes $276 million — $51 million more than Obama sought – for the Institutional Development Awards programme, which builds research infrastructure in states with historically low levels of NIH funding.
“This is good news for NIH,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “It’s absolutely a move in the right direction with regard to our investment in research.”
The Senate subcommittee’s plans are far from a done deal. But the bill, which the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee passed by voice vote, represents a defiant starting point for Senate negotiations with a far more frugal House of Representatives. To approve a new NIH budget — as opposed to continuing to operate at current funding levels because the two sides can’t resolve their differences — the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-dominated Senate must agree on a common figure for the biomedical agency. The Senate subcommittee, working from a total funding pot of $164 billion for all the agencies covered by its bill, has more room for largesse towards NIH than does its House counterpart, which is starting with a pot of $121.8 billion, or nearly 26% less.
The Senate bill is expected to be passed by the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the full committee, made it clear at a press event yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, that she plans to go to the mat for NIH, which under recent sequester cuts lost $1.55 billion of its original 2013 budget of $30.8 billion. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s transfer of $173 million in NIH 2013 funds to other agencies in the department added to the damage.
“We want to say ‘no’ to the slash and crash of reckless cuts to American biomedical research,” she declared against a backdrop of white-coated medical researchers who had gathered to emphasize the impact of sequestration on NIH-funded scientists.
Whether the Senate bill will ever actually be juxtaposed with a House counterpart remains to be seen. “Our action today stands in stark contrast to the House of Representatives,” Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee said. “The House began marking up appropriations bills in May, but so far there are no signs that it plans to consider the Labor-HHS bill.”
The Senate bill will become available after the full committee approves it on Thursday.