Congress sets its own NIH budget, ignoring proposals from two administrations

When the FY17 budget for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) was signed into law on May 5, 2017, six months behind schedule, it was noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, the budget was increased by $2 billion for the second year in a row. Second, the Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate disagreed with both the Obama and Trump administration budget requests for the agency.

In his final budget request as president, President Obama requested an increase of $825 million for the NIH for FY17. In the Trump Administration’s budget proposal for FY17, it called for a $1.2 billion cut to the NIH budget. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the Senate Labor, Health & Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, and Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), chair of the House Labor, Health & Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, led the way in giving the NIH budget its second annual $2 billion increase.

The report accompanying the Senate version of the FY17 NIH budget called the Obama $825 million increase a “step backwards” after the $2 billion increase in FY16. Congress also dismissed the plan by the Trump administration to cut the NIH budget. In response to the last-minute Trump proposal for FY17, Rep. Cole said, “Well, you know that’s fine, but it’s a little too late in the process.”

Within the $2 billion increase, the largest increase will go to the National Cancer Institute, which will see a 9.1% increase from FY16. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences comes in second with a 5.5% increase.

The delayed FY17 budget also included a 0.1% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF). In its final budget, the Obama Administration called for a 1.3% increase for the agency. The Trump budget called for a 13% cut to the agency. Unlike in previous budgets, Congress did not dictate how funding for each of the six NSF research directorates should be distributed.

Now that congressional budgeteers have finished their work on FY17, they have to immediately turn their attention to the FY18 budget, which is already behind schedule. The initial FY18 Trump administration budget, referred to as the “skinny budget” in Washington, DC, because of its lack of detail, called for an 18% cut to the NIH. While the NSF was not mentioned by name, it is assumed that it falls among the “Other Agencies” slated to be cut by 10%.

When the complete budget was released, the assumptions in the skinny budget were realized. Overall, the NIH budget was cut by 18%. Most Institutes and Centers would see reductions between 18% and 22%. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences is an exception with a cut of only 12%. The proposed NSF budget is cut by 11%.

It is unlikely that cuts of this magnitude will make it through Congress. The question, however, is what Congress will do.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email:

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