Wednesday, 22 May 2013 09:09

NIH Funding Forecast: Just Awful or Getting Much Worse?

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Uncertain funding forecast: NIH leaders tell Senate appropriators that fiscal weather is bad but fear worse. Uncertain funding forecast: NIH leaders tell Senate appropriators that fiscal weather is bad but fear worse.

A standing-room-only crowd at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee May 15 heard the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) top brass bemoan the stagnation in the last decade of federal funding for biomedical research and plead to be spared further cuts in the fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget.

NIH Director Francis Collins told the committee members that the NIH budget's purchasing power had declined by 22% in the last 10 years. Flanked by NIH Institute Directors Anthony Fauci, Gary Gibbons, Richard Hodes, Story Landis, and Harold Varmus, Collins recounted for the senators a recent conversation with a former postdoc from the Collins lab who told him that she was deeply anxious about prospects for any career at the bench in biomedical research.

Subcommittee chair and longtime NIH champion Tom Harkin (D-IA) expressed his frustration at the declining NIH budget but declared that he would not "savage" other programs in order to provide the NIH with the funding it needs. "I will not get engaged in pitting NIH against other worthwhile endeavors in this appropriations bill."

The current temporary sequestration cuts are only making things worse, Harkin said. "I can promise you, if sequestration stays in effect next year, there's no chance that we will get close to the president's request for NIH, let alone back to fiscal year 2012 levels. It just won't happen."

Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), both strong advocates for the NIH, also voiced their strong desire to increase funding for the NIH. Shelby even advocated another doubling of the NIH budget, similar to the great research funding expansion in the 1990s. Frustration with NIH's funding dilemma led Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the entire Senate Appropriations Committee, to promise action on ending the sequester and writing a FY14 budget that provides NIH with the funds it needs. "I'm going to work my earrings off to make that happen," Mikulski vowed.

As usual, subcommittee members ranged all over NIH territory with their questions, seeking information on everything from the recently announced BRAIN initiative to the role NIH research might play in responding to the spike in suicides by Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

The entire hearing is at:   http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/HealthFis

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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