Biomedical Research Funding: Joy on Hold

This week, U.S. biomedical researchers briefly caught sight of a big increase in federal funding in 2000--potentially the second windfall in 2 years--until it disappeared in the haze of party politics. After a stalemate in a key subcommittee yesterday, insiders say, biomedical funding may not get Congress's attention until September.

On 22 July, the House appropriations subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education twice scheduled a vote on a bill to raise the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by about 9% in 2000, according to congressional aides. And twice, the subcommittee canceled the meeting. The problem: Internecine battling over tax cuts and other domestic programs made it impossible to reach agreement on how to make the numbers in the bill add up. And without an agreement, the subcommittee was not able to write a bill. The subcommittee chair, Representative John Porter (R-IL), has said that he wants to help NIH double its budget in the next 5 years. But today, he postponed action on the bill indefinitely. The counterpart subcommittee in the Senate, chaired by Arlen Specter (R-PA), hasn't set a date for voting, either.

According to one House aide, however, Porter made some progress: He obtained permission from House Republican leaders to spend an extra $12 billion above a limit previously set for his subcommittee--enough to offer NIH and other agencies a cost-of-living increase. Congressional observers say Porter also worked out a scheme proposing a budget of $16.95 billion for NIH in 2000 (up from $15.6 billion this year). But this plan required "offset" funds taken from other programs, including Medicaid. This became controversial, and apparently Porter could not get enough votes to bring the plan forward. Now, it's on hold.

Although research advocacy groups were disappointed, they seem confident that NIH will get more than the 2% increase proposed by the Clinton Administration earlier this year. "This was a very positive week for biomedical research," says Michael Stephens, a former House staffer who now represents the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. He says Porter's offer of a $16.95 billion budget for NIH is "a very encouraging indication of the level of support in Congress for biomedical research."