Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

Senate spending panel approves $2 billion raise for NIH in 2018

A Senate subcommittee today approved a $2 billion raise, to $36.1 billion, for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. That 6% raise is nearly twice what a House of Representatives panel has approved and contrasts with a 22% cut that President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed for the agency. To the relief of research universities, the Senate draft spending bill would also block a Trump proposal to slash NIH payments to cover the overhead costs of research.

Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), chairperson of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, noted that this is the third year in a row that the committee has voted to boost NIH’s budget by $2 billion, a figure that prevailed in final spending bills in 2016 and 2017. The corresponding House panel has approved a $1.1 billion increase for the agency in 2018.

The draft Senate bill includes $414 million in new spending for research on Alzheimer’s disease, a 30% increase that would bring the total NIH spends on the disease to $1.8 billion, according to a bill summary. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative would receive a $140 million increase, for a total of $400 million. And the All of Us precision medicine study would get $290 million, a $60 million boost. 

Like the House bill, the Senate measure blocks a proposal by the White House to trim by two-thirds the payments that NIH now disburses to universities to cover utilities, administrative staff, hazardous waste disposal, high-speed computers, and other overhead costs of research grants. President Trump had suggested that NIH’s budget could be slashed without much impact on research if the agency capped these “indirect cost” payments at a flat rate of 10% of the grant total. The Senate panel disagreed: “These costs are not optional for the research community; they are a fundamental component of doing research,” Blunt said in his statement.

United for Medical Research, a coalition of groups that advocate for biomedical research funding, praised the “critical increase in funding” for NIH in the draft bill. The full appropriations committee will take up the bill tomorrow, when the bill text is expected to be released.

The Senate bill must eventually be reconciled with the House version, which is part of a package of spending bills that body could approve as early as this week.

Lawmakers likely won’t complete work on 2018 spending levels until late this year. In the meantime, Congress is expected to pass a stopgap measure by 30 September that would keep agencies funded at current levels for at least several months, giving it time to complete work on the 2018 spending bills. 

*Update, 8 September, 1:05 p.m.: The bill also rejects a Trump administration proposal to abolish NIH’s Fogarty International Center and create a new institute at NIH to absorb the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. In addition, unlike the draft House bill, which bans NIH from funding research using fetal tissue from elective abortions, the Senate measure instead directs NIH to create as a pilot project a tissue bank using fetuses from stillbirths and spontaneous abortions. These details are in the full-text bill and an accompanying report released on 7 September when the full Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve the bill.