NIH Budget: Post-Stimulus Cliff Still Looming, But Not Until Next Year


A U.S. biomedical research lobbying group today offered a sliver of solace to fears that Congress will slash science budgets this year.

A budget analysis from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) suggests that the post-stimulus "cliff"—the steep drop in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when its windfall from the 2009 stimulus act runs out—will not hit researchers this year, as expected. Instead, stimulus funds are actually peaking this year. That should help buffer researchers from an expected flat budget for NIH in 2011.

Two years ago, NIH received $10.4 billion in one-time spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on top of its $30 billion annual budget. It parceled the money out in grants and contracts worth roughly $5 billion in both 2009 and 2010. NIHers have worried ever since about what would happen when the stimulus money runs out. NIH Director Francis Collins warned Congress last April of this "cliff" and said it could mean a steep drop in grant success rates in 2011.

But the grants data on NIH's Web site tell a different story, according to FASEB officials. "We're looking at the money going out to labs," explains Howard Garrison, FASEB public affairs director. He found that the stimulus money is spread out mainly over fiscal years 2010 and 2011 (the fiscal year begins on 1 October of the previous year). The largest chunk ($3.7 billion) actually reaches researchers this year (see graph).

The FASEB analysis suggests that overall spending at NIH will continue to rise through fiscal year 2011 even if the agency gets no increase from Congress this year. (FASEB's annual report to Congress finds that the National Science Foundation and other agencies have spread the stimulus money over an even longer period.)

The cliff is still looming, however, in fiscal year 2012. To avoid it, FASEB says NIH needs a 14% increase over its baseline budget, to $35.4 billion. When the stimulus funds are included, Garrison says, the real increase is only 2.4%--just enough to keep pace with biomedical research inflation.

Of course, Congress may not be in such a generous mood. A proposal today by the chair of the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives would cut $1 billion from NIH's 2011 request of $31 billion. A freeze or cut to NIH's budget would be "damaging to our country's future," warns FASEB President William Talman. It would hamper NIH's ability to fund new projects and would also lead NIH to trim ongoing grants, forcing researchers to cut back on lab supplies or else lay off staff members, Talman says.