Last-Minute Compromise Gives NIH 7.1% Raise

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Congress agreed months ago that it wanted to give biomedical research a large raise in next year's budget. Now it has followed through: On 8 November, the Senate passed an appropriations bill that provides a 7.1% increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1998. The bill now goes to the White House, where the president is expected to sign it.

The bill gives NIH a budget of $13.6 billion and provides hefty raises for nearly all its divisions except the director's office, which will be held to a 3.6% increase. Most institutes will get 6% to 7% more than last year, and the fast-growing National Institute of Human Genome Research will receive a whopping 15.2% increase, giving it a total budget of $217.7 million.

Finalizing the bill, which comes 6 weeks after the start of the 1998 fiscal year, was a "long, tortuous process," says Representative John Porter (R-IL), chair of the House appropriations subcommittee. Porter had initially proposed a 6% increase for NIH, and his Senate counterpart, Arlen Specter (R-PA), had pushed through a bill promising 7.5%. The legislation, which covers the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, then got tied up for months over amendments on hot-button issues such as abortion, AIDS prevention, and a White House plan for national educational testing. The final sticking point was removed on 5 November, when negotiators reached an agreement that allows the Administration to develop an educational test, but not to implement it until 2000 or later.

Legislators larded the bill with potential bonuses for research areas they favor. For example, one section authorizes--but does not order--the NIH to create 10 centers for Parkinson's disease research and spend up to $100 million on the disease. Parkinson's advocates, who had lobbied hard for special budgetary treatment, read this as a big improvement over $34 million in direct current support. And in nods to other groups, the bill says that Congress expects NIH to spend $22 million on studies of neurodegenerative diseases and $38.5 million on pediatric research.