The Tortuous Path to an NIH Raise

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Congress has put biomedical research on the road to a major budget boost--but the spending faces a lengthy legislative detour before becoming reality. Late today, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a 14%, $2.3 billion budget increase, with the Senate poised to follow suit tomorrow.

President Bill Clinton has promised to veto the measure, however, in part because the Republican-crafted measure employs budget gimmicks that would delay some research grants until late next year. A veto would force a renegotiation that will delay--but probably not greatly alter--NIH's raise.

Biomedical groups have been pushing Congress to repeat last year's record $2 billion increase in NIH's budget, keeping the agency on track to double its $16 billion budget by 2004 (Science, 1 October, p. 19). Now, with the goal of a replay within sight, the massive $85 billion labor, education, and welfare measure that includes NIH's budget has become entangled in last-minute budgetary politics, as Republicans and Democrats jockey to fund their favorite programs while staying within mandated spending caps for the fiscal year that began 1 October. In one bid to do that, Republicans want NIH to wait until next September to spend about $2 billion of its proposed $17.9 billion 2000 budget, pushing the spending into the 2001 fiscal year.

Democrats are crying foul. "Delaying such a large part of NIH's budget will be a massive managerial challenge and force the delay of research and clinical trials," asserts Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). But Representative John Porter (R-Illinois), chair of the House panel that oversees NIH's budget, assured colleagues that "all of the money will eventually be paid out for research." The spending schedule is expected to be on the agenda in future budget negotiations between the White House and Congress, observers say, though the agency's overall budget is likely to remain largely unchanged.