During his State of the Union address on January 24, President Barack Obama urged Congress, among other things, to “support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future,” he pleaded.
With words like these, NIH supporters cannot be blamed for thinking Obama might have had more money in mind for the agency in the $3.8 trillion budget he proposed Monday for the 2013 fiscal year. Instead, the president froze NIH funding at the current fiscal year’s levels: $30.702 billion in discretionary budget authority from Congress and $30.86 billion in overall program level funding. Those are both 0.2% below FY 2011 funding levels of $30.767 billion in budget authority and $30.926 billion overall. The president’s budget was more favorable to NSF, boosting the foundation’s discretional budget authority 4.8% to $7.373 billion.
President Obama’s NIH budget proposal has disappointed advocates of greater federal research funding. “This is the time to be investing more in medical research rather than flat-lining it,” Dave Moore, senior director, government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges, told GEN. “While we recognize the overall budget situation, we believe that medical research represents not only an important part of the strategy to improve people’s health but it’s also a very critical part of the strategy to maintain our economic competitiveness and to stimulate economic vitality in communities across the country.”
Adjusted for inflation, Moore added, Obama’s proposed FY 2013 budget would represent a 20% loss in purchasing power over the past decade. “That’s not the direction we should be heading in.”
Obama and HHS say they did their best to balance the desire to fund basic research with the need to contain federal spending, a key issue in this year’s presidential election. Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GEN that a tight budget for NIH was likely given enactment last August of the Budget Control Act. The law forces Washington to cut at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years or else see across-the-board sequestration, which for NIH and other nondefense agencies would total 7.8%.
“We knew things were going to be tight. We had been warned that we would have to live under that cap and that the president’s budget would comply with the cap,” Zeitzer said. “I’m happy that there wasn’t a direct cut in the NIH budget. That would have been far worse.”
Despite the flat budget, NIH says, it plans to support 7.7%, or 672, more grants in FY ’13, up to 9,415. This will be despite a planned 0.2%, or $26 million, decline in funding for research project grants, which would fall to $16.463 billion from $16.489 billion in FY 2012. The decline would not lower the average cost of the grants, which is set to rise 1.8% in FY 2013, from $423 million to $431 million. The success rate for NIH grant applications would remain at 19%.
In its budget justification report to Congress, NIH linked the average cost increase to a rise in the average cost of the HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Networks included in the FY 2013 pool of competing research project grants. Without those networks, NIH added, the average cost of the grants would have dipped by 1%.
Research project grants would account for more than half (53%) of NIH’s budget. Of the remainder, 11% would fund intramural research, about 10% would fund R&D contracts, 9.6% would support research centers, about 6% would fund other research, and 5% would go toward research management and support.
NIH’s proposed budget increases funding for some of the agency’s 27 centers, institutes, and offices. Among them is the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), a priority project of NIH director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. that was established in December with the FY ’12 budget.
NCATS will see an 11%, or $64.32 million, increase in FY 2013, to $639.033 million. Most of that extra NCATS spending comes from the fivefold increase—from $9.981 million to $49.624 million—for the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN). CAN includes support for the Integrated Microsystems for Drug Screening Initiative, drug rescue and repurposing, target validation, and other programs.
NIH also wants to raise spending 15.6%, or $3.79 million, for the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Disease (TRND) program, from $23.995 million to $27.745 million. NCI would receive less than 0.1%, or $2.717 million, more in the coming fiscal year, rising to $5.069 billion. Also gaining would be the NIAID, which would see a $10.21 million, or 0.2% increase, to $4.495 billion from $4.485 billion.
NIH made up for those and other increases with an equal amount of spending cuts. The largest of these is the $48.354 million, or nearly 2%, cut for the agency’s basic research institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Its budget will dip to $2.379 billion from $2.427 billion.
The National Human Genome Research Institute will see $893,000, or 0.2%, less funding to reach $511.37 million from $512.263 million. NIH’s per-genome sequencing cost has fallen over the past decade from $100 million to $7,700 by the end of FY 2011. Also set to lose $1 million in FY ’13 would be the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which would see its funding slide to $337 million.
Obama’s proposed budget for NSF would give the agency $7.373 billion in discretional budget authority, up 4.8%, or $340 million. Total program outlays would fall 9%, or $753 million, to $7.528 billion from $8.281 billion.
NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences would spend $733.86 million, up 3%, or $21.48 million. Molecular and cellular biosciences would see the largest year-over-year increase (5%), rising to $132.68 million, followed by integrative organismal systems, which would increase 3.9% to $220.52 million, and biological infrastructure, up 2.8% to $129.68 million.
Also seeing an increase is NSF’s Research at the Interface of the Biological, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences (BioMaPS). Its funding will rise 51%, or $10.17 million, to $30.17 million from $20 million in FY ’12. BioMaPS aims to enable innovation in national priorities such as clean energy, climate science, and advanced manufacturing.
NSF expects to maintain its 22% approval rate for grants by approving 12,200 research awards from 55,100 competitive proposals in FY 2013 compared to 11,700 out of 53,400 competitive proposals in the current fiscal year.
Congress can be expected to focus on the relatively low rate of approvals for grant applications to NSF and especially NIH when the House and Senate appropriations committees start reviewing the agencies’ proposed budgets. It’s another sore point among researchers, still smarting from NIH’s effective lowering in December of the salary cap for principal investigators and officials by $20,000, with the goal of containing grant costs.
At the same time, advocates of greater research funding will also be pressing Congress to add funding to NIH and NSF. Since the agencies continue to enjoy support from lawmakers of both parties, and since most of those lawmakers will, like Obama, spend much of this year campaigning for re-election, the president and Congress will be hard pressed to decide on this or any other aspect of the budget before Election Day.
More likely, they’ll punt on the hard decisions until after a presidential winner emerges, then get going on a budget after that. Complicating things further is the January 2, 2013, deadline for cutting $1.2 trillion over 10 years from the budget deficit. That pressure, on top of the relatively flat 2013 budget proposal, makes it difficult at best for President Obama and Congress to avoid at least some cuts to the budgets of federal agencies involved in biopharma such as NIH and NSF as well as FDA and CDC.