It turns out, they like us, or so they say. Biomedical researchers should take note that for the second year in a row, U.S. Senate appropriators have declared funding the National Institutes of Health a...


When presenting to the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus (CBRC), you want to best represent the work...

Legislative Alerts

The Obligation for Biologists to Commit to Political Advocacy

Thomas D. Pollard

1Departments of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology, Yale University, PO Box 208103, New Haven, CT 06520-8103, USA
2 Departments of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University, PO Box 208103, New Haven, CT 06520-8103, USA
3 Department of Cell Biology, Yale University, PO Box 208103, New Haven, CT 06520-8103, USA

The work of most biological scientists depends heavily on governmental funding, and this support stands in competition with every other program that receives government funds. Historically, biologists took for granted that politicians would provide adequate funding, given the virtue of advancing human health. Complacency was the norm because the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) generally increased at or above the level of inflation during the second half of the 20th century, and the budget of the NIH doubled between 1998 and 2003. Unfortunately, funding has stagnated since 2003, so taking inflation into account, the purchasing power of the NIH budget has declined about 20% over the last decade (AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 2012; also see for regular updates.)

Times have changed for the worse for two reasons. First, the global economic recession has done real damage to science. Weak tax revenues and growing deficits have led politicians to compromise funding for research in spite of the established benefit of basic research for stimulating economic growth. The situation in the United States for 2013 is particularly dire. The failure of Congress to adopt a deficit reduction program in 2011 resulted in a fall-back option called sequestration, which may reduce federal funding across the board by 8% on January 1, 2013. If this comes to pass, we face widespread unemployment in the biological research community and the loss of many valuable research programs. Second, although US citizens still hold science and scientists in high esteem (Masci, 2009), some politicians use ideological opposition to scientific findings (evolution and climate change to cite two examples) to take anti-science positions.

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NIH Appropriations Update

July 21, 2012


On July 17, the House Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Committee (Labor-HHS Committee) released its FY13 spending bill. The draft House bill freezes funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for FY13 and recommends funding at $30.6 billion. This matches the President’s request but is $100 million below what the Senate appropriators approved. 

Most institutes/centers would see slight reductions compared with FY12—including a 2% decrease for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). The draft House bill provides $574.7 million for NCATS, while the Senate bill provides $631.3 million, a 9.8% increase. Within the NCATS budget, the draft House bill specifies that “at least” $487.767 million be provided for Clinical and Translational Scientific Awards (CTSA). The Senate bill does not specify a funding level for CTSAs. The draft House bill also provides up to $10 million within the NCATS budget to implement the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN). The Senate bill provides up to $40 million to implement CAN.

The draft House bill reduces the limit on salaries on grants or other extramural mechanisms funded by the bill to Executive Level III or $165,300. The Senate bill retains the current salary cap at Executive Level II or $179,700.

The draft House bill increases the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences budget by $100 million, but that increase was provided to offset an increase for the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program. The IDeA program is designed to broaden the geographic distribution of NIH funding for biomedical research. As authorized by Congress, the program’s intent is to enhance the competitiveness for research funding of institutions located in states with historically low levels of funding and low aggregate success rates for grant applications to the NIH. The House draft bill language states that “not less than” $376.48 million is provided for the IDeA program, an increase of $100 million over FY12. The Senate bill funds the program at the FY12 level of $276 million. 

In addition to spending cuts, the draft House bill contains policy provisions. The bill forbids "patient-oriented outcomes research,” mandates at least 16,670 new and competing Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, and stipulates that NIH maintain an allocation of 90% to extramural activities, 10% for intramural activities, and at least 55% toward basic science. Some provisions may be helpful, but others could undermine the agency’s ability to fund the best science. Institute and center directors currently are trying to reprioritize budgets to deal with the threat of sequestration and will now be forced to shift scarce dollars to mandated Research Project Grants or other mechanisms. The bill also forbids Dr. Collins or his staff from traveling until they implement a pilot program Congress requested last year, which will ask third-party insurers to pay for patients on clinical trial protocols at the NIH’s Clinical Center.

The bill approved by the House Labor-HHS Subcommittee must now pass the full Appropriations Committee and House of Representatives. Ideally, the House and Senate would resolve differences between their bills, but this is unlikely until after the November elections. At that time NIH will be a small piece of the legislative agenda. Along with tying up any leftover appropriations bills, lawmakers are likely to be under incredible pressure to act on several massive pieces of legislation, including decisions on increasing the debt ceiling, expiring Bush tax cuts, and budget sequestration. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be on the line. If Congress can’t resolve the sequestration plan in the lame duck session, the FY13 appropriation approved for the NIH will not mean much given that sequestration will automatically cut 7% from the NIH budget starting January 1, 2013. 

Washington, DC, Wrap-Up

June 14, 2012


On June 14, the Senate Appropriations Committee met to consider the FY13 Labor-Health and Human Services-Education (Labor-HHS) appropriations bill, which funds the NIH. The bill included $30.7 billion for the NIH, a small increase of $100 million over current year funding.  The CLS has actively advocated for a funding level of $32 billion for the NIH in FY13. 

During consideration of the bill, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) offered an amendment that would have increased funding for the NIH by $1.3 billion, providing $32 billion for the NIH in FY13. To pay for the increase, his amendment proposed a minimal across-the-board cut to the other programs in this bill (it would have resulted in a less than 1% cut to each of the other programs).  The amendment failed primarily along party lines, with every Democrat on the Committee voting against this amendment.

The CLS strongly supported the Moran amendment.  While we are pleased the Committee opted to provide any kind of increase to the NIH in these tough budgetary times, the slight increase of $100 million is simply not enough to keep pace with biomedical research inflation.  In addition, with the looming budget sequestration (automatic spending cuts that go into effect January 2013 and are a result of the Budget Control Act), the NIH is facing historic cuts.  NIH Director Francis Collins explained to the Senate Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee in March that sequestration is expected to cut $2.4 billion off the agency's budget and would mean NIH would fund 2,300 fewer grants next year.

The Senate Labor-HHS appropriations bill is now expected to go for a vote before the full Senate. The Senate has not indicated if and when they plan to vote on the bill. The House Appropriations Committee is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the Obama Health Care bill before addressing their version of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.