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NIH gets $2 billion boost in Senate spending bill

A Senate spending panel today approved a $2 billion boost in 2017 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or a 6.2% increase to $34.1 billion. It's the second year in a row that the Senate has slated the agency for a large increase after 12 years of flat budgets. 

“This is tremendous and we are profoundly grateful to [committee leaders] for taking a critical step toward rebuilding the stability of the NIH budget,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

The bill from the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budgets of health, labor, and education agencies disregarded a request from President Obama to cut NIH's budget by $1 billion and then use so-called mandatory funds to restore that money and give the agency an additional $825 million. Many lawmakers are loathe to use mandatory funding, which comes from a dedicated stream such as a special tax or selling off some of the nation’s petroleum reserves. In March, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), who chairs the health spending subcommittee, and the chair of the corresponding House of Representatives panel, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), said they would reject the Obama proposal. They pledged to use the regular appropriations process to give NIH at least a $1 billion boost in the 2017 fiscal year that begins 1 October as part of steady budget growth. 

The final number from Blunt’s panel matches the $2 billion raise that NIH received last year. According to a committee press release, the bill also includes $1.39 billion for Alzheimer’s disease research, a 40% increase. It allocates a $100 million increase for Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which would total $300 million. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping project would get $100 million more for a total of $250 million. And the bill includes $50 million in new spending for a federal initiative to combat antimicrobial resistance.

One initiative that is not mentioned is a proposal to give NIH $680 million in 2017 to carry out parts of Vice President Joe Biden’s proposed moonshot to double progress against cancer. Subcommittee member Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who also chairs another committee that has crafted several bills to speed medical innovation, suggested during today’s hearing that the moonshot could still receive mandatory funding as part of the innovation bills.

But the prospects of those bills being approved by Congress this year are uncertain. If they don’t pass, it’s possible that moonshot funding will be added to the appropriations bill later in the legislative process, Zeitzer says.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee will take up the measure on Thursday, after which more details of the bill should become publicly available. Cole’s House subcommittee hasn’t yet announced when it will introduce its version of the bill.