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Under the looking glass
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Institutes of Health (NIH) presented its 2013 budget plan to a Senate appropriations subcommittee on March 28 amidst general approval and some allocation concerns. The hearing featured Dr. Francis Collins, director of NIH, as well as several other institute directors.
The administration's proposed budget for NIH in 2013 is $30.86 billion, the same program level as 2012.
"In fiscal year '13, NIH expects to support an estimated 9,415 new and competing research projects grants," said Collins in a webcast of the hearing on the United States Senate's Committee on Appropriations website. The figure represents 672 more grants than were estimated for 2012, and NIH expects to support roughly 35,888 research project grants total for 2013.
The flat funding has garnered concerns about grants, particularly as research costs generally continue to increase each year, even as NIH seeks to fund more proposals. As such, many of the concerns raised at the hearing focused on where cuts would be made.
One of the proposed allocations that raised a point of contention is an extra $80 million for Alzheimer's research, which would come from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fund meant to support disease prevention activities. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chair of the subcommittee on labor, health and human services, supports the fund and said moving that money toward research was not an appropriate use for it.
"I'm a strong supporter of Alzheimer's research, but this $80 million isn't happening," Harkin said at the hearing. "NIH has the flexibility to direct a larger share of its funding to Alzheimer's research within its own budget."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., questioned the NIH's apparent plan to increase the number of proposals it will fund by putting a cap on the amount of funding an investigator could receive at $1.5 million. According to an NIH budget document of Collins' statements, the $1.5 million does not represent a cutoff, but a figure at which investigators will trigger review. Roughly 6 percent of principal investigators receive NIH funding at that amount.
"The $1.5 million cap is actually not a cap at all. The point is just that individual investigators who have more than $1.5 million in NIH research funding are automatically going to be limited," says Francis Patrick White, associate director for legislative policy and analysis at the NIH. "It's only that they will draw a little bit more scrutiny to make sure that the research that's being proposed is not being done elsewhere or might be better handled by other researchers."
The NIH also plans to trim its Institutional Development and Award (IDeA) program back to the 2011 level of $225 million, a move that raised concerns with Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., though Harkin sided with the NIH in that "we're not in the business of just spreading money around."
"From a programmatic point of view, the administration's understanding was that the (IDeA) increase between 2011 and 2012 was temporary, and it's apparent that individual senators do not feel that that's the case," White explains. "And so it's not as though the program was being cut, necessarily, nor is it being trimmed or capped to fund other things."
The sequestration cuts that loom on the horizon if Congress continues to fail at finding a plan to cut the federal deficit were also a big concern raised by Harkin, one that Collins said was well founded. If the cuts kick in, the NIH stands to face a 7.8 percent budget cut, losing nearly $2.4 billion in funding, a loss that Collins said would result in roughly 2,300 grants being lost in 2013, representing almost a quarter of the estimated new and competing grants. Several emerging projects with significant potential "would be put at great risk."
While differences of opinion were obvious in terms of where additional funds should be taken from, there was definite support of the work the NIH does and the positive effects the organization continues to have on both the economy and biomedical industry. Harkin called NIH "one of the great institutions of this country," thanking the directors for their leadership and noting that "because of all of you, America is a world leader in biomedical research."
"Generally speaking, and I think this is the administration's point of view as well, were it not for the fiscal constraints under which our country is currently operating, I think there has been historically—and regardless of administration in and administration out—there has always been very, very strong support for the National Institutes of Health and biomedical research," says White. "And over and over again, individual members from both parties express that view."