Landrieu: The Business of NIH Should Be Small Business

A senior U.S. National Institutes of Health official took a step toward mending fences with the chair of the Senate Small Business Committee today by assuring her that the agency is doing its best to give small businesses their rightful share of stimulus funding for research.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D–LA) has been steamed by a clause in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that allowed NIH to exempt its slice, some $7.3 billion, from the 2.5% tax on every federal agency's research budget that funds the 27-year-old Small Business Innovation Research program. So she included Sally Rockey, NIH's acting head of extramural research, in a oversight hearing on how the stimulus funds have affected small businesses.

Rockey told Landrieu that NIH wasn't getting enough high-quality SBIR proposals—the number of applicants had dropped by almost half since 2003—to warrant expanding the program.

Although she declined to answer Landrieu's question about whether NIH requested the exemption, Rockey said that "we need to do a better job" of increasing participation and mentioned one new program designed to attract first-time applicants.

Landrieu did extract a promise from Rockey that "we're committed" to maintaining the current set-aside for SBIR and a smaller companion program totaling 2.8%. And Rockey predicted that NIH would end up giving small businesses about $200 million of its stimulus research funds—roughly what the set-aside would have accomplished—even without a mandate to do so.