Senate Spending Panel Approves $31 Billion for NIH in 2014, Restoring Sequester Cuts

A Senate spending panel today approved a bill giving the National Institutes of Health (NIH) $31 billion in 2014, a figure that would restore this year's painful 5% cut from sequestration and give the agency a small increase over its 2012 budget.

The mandatory across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration slashed $1.55 billion from NIH's budget this year and will result in belt-tightening at labs with ongoing grants as well as hundreds fewer new grants than in 2012. The measure approved today by the Senate appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies includes $30.955 billion for NIH. That figure would provide a 1% boost of $307 million over NIH's 2013 budget (before sequestration), which was essentially the same as in 2012.

An online summary states that the bill includes $40 million that the president requested for NIH's proposed BRAIN brain-mapping initiative. The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday, at which point more details will become available.

Although the increase falls short of the $31.3 billion requested by President Barack Obama, Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative relations director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), said that her group is "thrilled" with the figure. "It's far better than the current situation and it's a move in the right direction," she says. FASEB has been pushing for $32 billion for NIH in 2014 to shore up the agency's budget after a decade of flat funding and losses to inflation.

NIH has strong support from Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who held a press conference yesterday to discuss NIH at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Mikulski said that she is determined to reverse "reckless cuts to American biomedical research." NIH Director Francis Collins was on hand as well and warned: "We're putting an entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk and our own nation at risk as well" with the sequester cuts. Hopkins officials said that the sequester has cost the university $38 million in NIH funding this year and will force the layoff of dozens of staff members.

Although the Senate number is relatively good news for NIH, the agency's prospects in the House of Representatives are gloomy. Because House leaders want to follow through on plans to impose additional sequestration cuts, the corresponding House appropriations subcommittee has a much smaller pot of money for its Labor/HHS bill. That means that NIH's budget could potentially be slashed by nearly 20% in any House bill.

The House subcommittee has not yet scheduled a markup of its bill, however, and onlookers expect it may not ever do so. Instead, they predict that the two chambers will hammer out NIH's final 2014 budget as part of a government-wide spending bill months from now, long after the fiscal year begins on 1 October.