Senate Panel Hikes NIH Budget by 16%

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The last leg of the biomedical community's campaign to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over 5 years got a boost today from a key Senate spending panel. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $27.2 billion for NIH for the year beginning 1 October, a 16% increase over 2002 and twice its 1998 level.

Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), leaders of the subcommittee that oversees NIH's budget, celebrated the doubling "victory" a day earlier at a jubilant press conference. Joining them were new NIH chief Elias Zerhouni, his deputy Ruth Kirschstein, and six directors of the larger NIH institutes, who donned spanking new white lab coats with their names sewn on them for the occasion. "This is a red-letter day. It's a milestone," said Harkin.

The Senate panel didn't follow the Bush plan to the letter, however. Instead, it trimmed $263 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases--which had been slated for a 57% boost, mainly because of $1.5 billion for antibioterrorism research--and spread it around. That left many of NIH's institutes slated for a 8.4% increase in the president's budget closer to 9%, a committee staffer says. "All these other problems--cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's--did not stop being problems on September 11," explained a committee aide. The bill allows NIAID to decide which programs it will cut.

The lawmakers also ignored the president's request to spend $5.1 billion on cancer-related research because "we would have considered that to be earmarking for a disease," the staffer says. Even so, they matched his 12% boost for the National Cancer Institute, to $4.6 billion.

While elated by the Senate mark, biomedical lobbyists note that the figure may be lower in the House, where the corresponding spending panel has a smaller total to work with. The House is expected to take up the spending bill in September after a month-long recess; the two versions must then be reconciled.