NIH's 2012 Budget Would Get 3.3% Boost in House Bill

A House of Representatives panel released a 2012 draft spending bill today with surprisingly good news for the National Institutes of Health (NIH): The agency's budget would rise $1 billion to $31.7 billion, a 3.3% increase compared with this year's level. However, the bill does not carry out a major reorganization proposed by NIH leaders, and it is more prescriptive about other management issues than biomedical lobbyists feel is appropriate for a research agency.

The proposed spending boost matches the president's request and reverses a $190 million cut approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It also comes as a surprise, given that 7 months ago the full House approved a 2011 spending bill that would have slashed $1.6 billion, or 5%, from NIH's budget. (The final legislation trimmed NIH's 2011 budget by 1%.)

The increase is "pretty remarkable" given overall budget constraints, says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C. But he points out that the bill also slashes health professions training programs that are important to AAMC. "We're heartened by the statement of support for the NIH, but that's tempered by what else has been cut," he says.

Moore's group is also concerned about provisions that it believes "micromanage" NIH. Those provisions include requiring a minimum of 9150 new and competing grants and a 90-10 split between the size of the extramural and intramural research programs. Such decisions are best left to peer review and the scientific judgment of NIH staff, Moore says.

The bill does not mention NIH's plan to create a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and to abolish the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). (The Senate bill would make these changes.) In June, the chair of the House appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee, Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT), said that his subcommittee could not act on the changes until it received an official budget request directly from the White House.

Nor does the bill allocate funding for the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN), a new program that the Senate bill would fund at $20 million within NCATS. However, the bill says the NIH director's office can spend $2 million to set up a CAN board to begin planning the network. And it appears to move $100 million that NIH had requested for CAN to NCRR to expand its Institutional Development Award program to $330.6 million. Rehberg's state, Montana, receives funding from this program for have-not states to help their researchers be more competitive for NIH grants.

The House spending panel followed an unusual process in issuing its 2012 draft prior to a meeting of the subcommittee. Such a session was scheduled for 9 September and then canceled. No new date has been set. But the draft gives the House committee a "marker" for upcoming negotiations with its Senate counterpart. In the meantime, Congress has approved a temporary measure to keep the federal government funded at the 2011 level through 4 October that will likely be extended next week until 18 November. Moore expects the two chambers to negotiate an "omnibus" appropriations measure by late November that would fund most, if not all, of the federal government.

See our 2012 Budget coverage.