NIH Does the Budget Shuffle

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been bracing for a slowdown after a 5-year budget doubling, and this week the White House slammed on the brakes. The president's 2004 budget request contains only a $549 million increase, to $27.9 billion, a mere 2% increase over the requested 2003 budget.

"A lot of us are concerned that this [budget] is going to really slow down the momentum," says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Moore heads an ad hoc coalition that has successfully lobbied for annual NIH budget increases of 14% to 16% since 1998, although this year's budget will likely fall slightly short of the level needed to complete the doubling. Spending on nonbiodefense research will rise by only 4.3% next year.

To be sure, the 2% boost is better than an 0.2% increase that the White House had proposed internally in December. NIH budgeteers have tried to ease the pain with some accounting maneuvers--such as beefing up funds for buildings in 2003 and then shifting the money into research grants in 2004.

In total, $1.4 billion will be shifted to research in 2004, helping NIH to fund 10,506 new competitive grants. That's 344 more new grants than in 2003, good news compared with a projected cut of at least 1000 that lobbyists were lamenting a few weeks ago. However, nearly all of the new grants are slated for bioterrorism, and the size of an average grant will rise by only 2.7%, less than the 4% of years past. NIH says its overall research budget will grow by 7.5%, but the budgets of most institutes would rise by just 3% to 4%.

Lobbyists say that NIH needs annual increases of 8% to 9% to preserve the gains from its doubling years (Science, 24 May 2002, p. 1401). And Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) has taken up their cause by calling for 8.5% increases in each of the next 5 years. But the competition will be stiff, as other constituencies will be clamoring for a taste of what the NIH community has enjoyed for years.

Related sites
NIH 2004 budget request