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2011 Spending Deal Spares NIH Major Cuts

Just as White House officials promised over the weekend, the 2011 funding bill agreed to by Congress and the White House last Friday spares biomedical research from major cuts.

Details released today indicate that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive $30.7 billion, or $260 million below the 2010 level. The 0.8% cut includes $210 million spread across all 27 NIH institutes and centers and the director's office, and $50 million from a buildings account. (Adding a 0.2% across-the-board cut in all non-defense agencies, the total cut will be about $300 million, says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges.) By contrast, an earlier House bill, H.R. 1, would have slashed NIH's budget by $1.6 billion to $29.5 billion.

Unlike the earlier House proposal, the bill does not contain language opposed by research groups that would have required NIH to support a specific number of new grants at a minimum funding level. Nor does the bill mention the Cures Acceleration Network (CAN), a drug development program created by last year's health care reform law. But NIH needs some money to get CAN started as part of a new center for translational research. It's possible that NIH will ask for funds when it submits detailed spending plans next month, says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Moore says that, given the earlier House proposal and overall cuts to other agencies in the bill, "the final outcome for NIH has to be viewed as relatively good news. Certainly people will be disappointed research is being cut, but in the current budget climate it could have been a lot worse." But while Zeitzer says her group is also "pleased," she notes that many legislators are urging additional cuts in 2012 budgets now before Congress. "It will be short-term relief," she says about the 2011 deal.

The bill brings to a close a dramatic few days last week when scientists at NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus, were bracing for a possible federal government shutdown. Researchers running clinical trials planned to stop enrolling new patients, and furloughs were scheduled for all but about a quarter of NIH's 19,000 staff members, who were deemed "essential" to care for patients and maintain animals and cell lines. NIH also planned to shutter and the PubMed abstracts database.