No Holiday Cheer for NIH, NSF

When is a budget increase not really a budget increase? When President George W. Bush prepares a 2004 request to Congress before legislators have completed work on this year's budget.

Although the president's request for the next fiscal year won't become public until early February, ScienceNOW has learned that the White House has settled on a 9% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF), to roughly $5.4 billion. That sounds like a hefty increase for a domestic research agency when the economy is in a slump, a war against Iraq looms, and the budget deficit is growing. But on closer scrutiny, it might turn out to be no more money than Congress gives NSF this year. The $23.3 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) has received similarly Scrooge-like news for the holidays: The White House has offered less than a 1% hike, not even enough to cover inflation, although NIH's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is appealing.

First, it's based on the president's 2003 request for a 5% hike, a number that Congress is almost certain to surpass when it finishes work next month on the budget for the fiscal year that began 1 October. (The House has already approved a 13% increase, while a Senate panel has endorsed a 12% hike.) Second, before calculating the 9% increase, budget officials subtracted $76 million from a dead-on-arrival proposed transfer of funds to NSF from three other agencies. The result is a presidential request for 2004 of roughly $600 million over 2002 levels, which falls in the range of increases under consideration by Congress for 2003--in other words, the president's request might represent no increase from 2003 to 2004.

There's no sugar coating on the NIH request, which sources say is a mere $50 million over the expected 2003 total of $27.3 billion. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson has appealed to budget officials to reconsider his original 5% request. But NIH watchers are dubious of anything more than the 2% that the White House has projected for future years. And unlike in previous years, nobody is counting on Congress to come to NIH's rescue.