Research Advocates Dispirited Over Omnibus Funding Level for NIH

Feb 25 2014

Research Advocates Dispirited Over Omnibus Funding Level for NIH

97788738Biomedical research advocates had hoped that a surge in research and development funding in the 2014 budget would be the best medicine for the National Institutes of Health, which has been impaired by mandated across-the-board sequestration cuts. Instead, the $1 billion increase slated for NIH in the $1.1 trillion appropriations bill passed by Congress in January was a bitter pill.

While the boost will bring NIH’s 2014 research and development budget to an estimated $29 billion, it remains “well below the level of scientific opportunity,” warned Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. “The omnibus has failed to fund NIH at a level that fully reverses the impact of sequestration on the agency’s baseline funding level, much less establishes a growth trend that can fully unleash the potential inherent in the sequencing of the human genome and other research breakthroughs,” Woolley wrote in a statement.

The omnibus bill funds the government through Sept. 30. Congress reached the spending deal in December, but it took a month for lawmakers to divvy up discretionary dollars in the 1,500-page bill that rolls multiple department budgets — defense and non-defense accounts — into one. President Obama signed it into law Jan. 17.

For many governmental agencies, the 2014 budget eased the pain of the 2013 sequester’s 5 percent bite; however, the majority of the 27 institutes and centers under the NIH’s umbrella remain underfunded. NIH funding for research and development is now 2.2 percent below fiscal year 2012 levels, a loss of roughly $700 million, according to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Carrie Wolinetz, PhD, president of United for Medical Research, agreed that the $1 billion increase falls short of sustainable funding levels for NIH to accomplish its mission of turning scientific discoveries into better health.

“The proposed package won’t adequately reverse the damage done by last year’s budget sequester and ensure the nation’s biomedical research enterprise makes continued progress in lifesaving research and development,” Dr. Wolinetz stated.

Sequestration resulted in approximately 640 fewer competitive research project grants that were issued in fiscal year 2013 compared to fiscal year 2012, according to the NIH. The 2014 funding levels will gain back some ground for emerging investigators. The NIH would be able to continue all current research programs and begin approximately 385 additional research studies and trials, according to a statement from appropriators.

Yet, many stalled projects will need to seek other funding sources. Delays in medical progress not only put Americans’ health in jeopardy, but they also add to their economic risks, research advocates stressed. For example, the medical innovation sector currently employs 1 million U.S. citizens, according to the NIH, and ongoing funding declines could discourage young scientists who will play a pivotal role as global competitiveness in research and development ramps up.

In an editorial for the Washington Post, NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, worried that “years of effectively flat funding for biomedical research have left scientists facing the lowest chances in history of having their research funded by NIH. Many young scientists are on the verge of giving up, taking with them the talent needed to make tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs.”

In constant dollars, the NIH budget has come down by around 15 percent since fiscal year 2004, according to the AAAS analysis.

“The nation’s federal investment in science as a share of the economy currently stands at 0.82 percent — the lowest point in 50 years,” wrote Alan I. Leshner, chief executive office of the AAAS, and Paul Stoffels, MD, chief scientific officer and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, in an op-ed article for Politico Magazine.

While praising Congress’s bipartisan efforts to put an end to forced budget cuts and fights over discretionary funding, the progress “will not counteract the decades-long decline in federal funding for research and development that is so essential to our economic future and critical to accelerating treatments for today’s major health care challenges.”

Here’s how the NIH’s $1 billion funding increase stacked up against the amounts that some of other public health and scientific agencies won in the 2014 spending package:

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration landed one of the bigger increases. It received $17.7 billion, including a 7.7 percent jump to $5.2 billion for its science program.
  • The bill provided $7.2 billion for the National Science Foundation, an increase of 4.2 percent ($288 million) above the fiscal year 2013 sequester level.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also fared well, growing its budget to $5.8 billion, which went up by $370 million from 2013. Among its top spending priorities in its fiscal 2014 budget request, the CDC wants to boost spending for vaccines for children.

Attention now turns to the 2015 budget cycle, which begins Oct. 1. The White House announced that it will release President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2015 on March 4. House and Senate leaders are hopeful that the momentum they built during the appropriations process will continue so that they can enact a detailed funding plan before the October deadline.