NIH to Come
As for NIH, arguably the most important science agency not covered by the minibus, Obama’s budget proposal included a $200 million, or 3% increase, to $31.7 billion. NIH will be included in whatever minibus covers the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education portion of the budget and could perhaps also be combined with another portion of the budget, such as Defense.
“Labor-HHS-Education is a tough allocation, and they’re probably going to get many, many amendments on the floor,” Jon Retzlaf, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research, told GEN. “I think the Labor-HHS bill could take up an entire week by itself, with the amendments that are out there to do everything like trying to remove some of the money for some of the healthcare reform provisions. The question is, do they want to have that fight, and do they have the time for it?”
One example of how amendments and politics can mix arose last month during the markup of the Labor-HHS-Education budget portion by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) proposed an amendment to restore the $190 million cut from NIH and offset it by an across-the-board reduction in all other programs in the bill.
The amendment failed 14–16, with all Democrats opposed and all Republicans in favor. Senate Appropriations had approved, on September 21, $30.5 billion for NIH, down 0.6%, or $190 million, from last fiscal year’s budget of about $30.68 billion.
Obama found an ally for greater NIH funding in the House, where on September 29, House Appropriations released a draft Labor-HHS-Education spending bill also allocating $31.7 billion, which was the amount President Obama sought. “By spending tax dollars strategically, we can balance critical funding for programs that actually help people and families with the real need to rein in government over-spending,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, said in a statement.
If the House Appropriations proposal for NIH at $31.7 billion sounds a little too good to be true, there’s a reason. In FY’11, NIH’s budget was sliced 0.8%, or $260 million, from $30.93 billion in FY’10 to $30.68 billion. The latest spending bill has not been approved by its namesake subcommittee or the full committee, let alone the full House. That raises the question of whether a bill that matches Obama in NIH spending could survive a Republican-controlled House.
Even if it did, the House Appropriations draft offers small comfort to NIH supporters in the Senate or elsewhere. It requires the agency to award at least a total 9,150 new and competing grants, and maintain a 90–10% split between funding for its extramural and intramural research programs.
Moore and other NIH supporters have criticized these provisions as instances of micromanagement. “The House has stipulations in its bill that are very concerning to the entire community,” Retzlaf said.
However the House and Senate resolve their differences over NIH funding, their answer for this fiscal year is unlikely to carry over into next. The “supercommittee” formed to cut at least $1.2 trillion from federal spending over 10 years is due to issue recommendations on November 23. While the supercommittee’s work will not affect the FY’12 budget, it will lay groundwork for how Washington spends for science agencies and other priorities for the decade to come.
Some of that groundwork should be easier to lay if the House and Senate can come to terms quickly on at least the parts of an FY 2012 budget. Science agencies should fit much more into that category compared to hot-button issues like healthcare reform funding or whether and how to cut defense.
Will President Barack Obama get his wish for $31.7 billion for NIH?