A Flat Budget for NIH in 2013

There's little to cheer biomedical researchers in the president's budget proposal released today: the proposal would hold the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget at the current level of $30.86 billion.

While the budgets of most of NIH's 27 institutes are remaining flat, NIH would move some money around through "prioritization," said NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak after a press briefing today. The agency wants to add $64 million, an 11% increase, to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). The increase would include $40 million more for the Cures Acceleration Network (now funded at $10 million).

To free up these funds, NIH wants to cut $51 million from the IDeA program, which are grants for states that get relatively little NIH funding and that are administered by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Last year Congress gave NIH a large increase over what it had requested, so it was a place to trim, Tabak said. Another $28 million cut will come from the now-$194 million budget of the National Children's Study budget within the Office of the Director. The massive study that plans to track the health of 100,000 children into adulthood has found ways to save money by changing recruitment strategies and using "existing infrastructure," Tabak said.

In order to squeeze more grants out of the flat budget—the target is an 8% increase in new grants, to 672, for a total of 9415--NIH will put in place new grant management policies. Continuing grants will be cut 1% below the 2012 level, competing grants wouldn't get inflationary increases in future years, and NIH will add a new layer of review for proposals from investigators who already have at least $1.5 million in funding.

Still, the success rate is projected to bump up only slightly from this year's all-time low of 18% to 19%, NIH says. And although new grants will rise, the overall number of funded grants will actually drop by 56 to 35,888.

Tabak pointed to the positive: "I think that this budget enables us to support an increase in the number of new and competing grants—it's up 8%. This budget allows us to continue the implementation of NCATs which we feel is very important. And this budget allows us to continue our priorities in basic sciences, innovative science, and of course support for new investigators."

But advocates of biomedical research were disappointed. "Overall, we're aware of the overall budget situation, but we're still very concerned about the proposed freeze," says David Moore, senior director of government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges. It would be the 10th year in a row that NIH's budget has not kept pace with biomedical research inflation, he says. As a result, in inflation-adjusted dollars, "we'd be 20% below where we were a decade ago," Moore says.

A new $80 million for Alzheimer's research that was announced last week is not coming from NIH's budget, but from the Prevention and Public Health Fund of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is a pot of money created by the 2010 health care law. Tabak said NIH does not know if the funding is for 1 year only or would continue in future years.

Correction: The proposed cut to the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program is $51 million, not $48 million.