NIH Director Bends Budget to Fit Five Themes

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins says he's pleased with the $1 billion raise, to $32.1 billion, that NIH is slated to get in the president's 2011 budget. It may be a modest 3.2% raise, but aside from the $10.4 billion NIH got last year in Recovery Act money, the $1 billion is the largest increase proposed by the Administration for NIH in 8 years. "It could have been a lot worse," Collins says. "Clearly, this is a difficult time budgetarily. I am grateful that I work for a president who ... has been able to give support to science not just at NIH but across many agencies as well."

Groups such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) are applauding, too. Most of NIH's 27 institutes and centers will receive increases ranging between 2.5% and 3.6%.

The details, Collins says, reflect five themes that he laid out last year: genomics, translational research, health care reform, global health, and reinvigorating the biomedical community. It’s a coincidence, he says, that these priorities led to disproportionate boosts for two diseases that the Obama Administration singled out for attention before Collins took the NIH helm last summer: cancer (up 4.4% to $6.036 billion) and autism (up 5%, to $142 million as part of a $222 million initiative spanning the Department of Health and Human Services).

Although NIH directors generally don't like being told to spend money on specific diseases, Collins says his "science-based budgeting" found that these two areas were "particularly well primed for investments," especially in genomics: Along with funding cancer and autism clinical trials, NIH plans to expand its cancer genome atlas and sequence the entire genomes of 300 autism patients and their parents. "It's driven by science," he says.

The budget will also double, to $50 million, a program Collins helped launch as genome institute director to develop drugs for rare and neglected diseases; put $20 million into OppNet, a new cross-NIH initiative on behavioral and social sciences research; add $22 million to nanotechnology health research, a 6% boost to $382 million; and contribute $33 million to building a Department of Energy synchrotron.

But largely because of these priorities, the news isn't good for scientists competing for NIH's individual investigator awards. The pot of money for new and competing extramural grants will fall 0.3% to roughly $4 billion, and the number of these grants will drop by 199 to 9052. And demand for grants could soar because of the many scientists who received temporary, 2-year funding through the $8.2 billion for extramural research that NIH received in the Recovery Act.

Indeed, Collins expects success rates—the chances that a submitted application will be funded—to slide in 2011. "Frankly, we are going to have to do great science under challenging circumstances," Collins says. FASEB President Mark Lively praised the $1 billion boost but suggests that NIH actually needs six times that much to maintain momentum from the Recovery Act money. Otherwise, "we're not going to be able to continue the benefits" from the stimulus, Lively says.