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Senate panel approves $2 billion raise for NIH in 2016

At last, biomedical researchers may be getting some relief. A Senate panel today approved a bill that would bestow a generous $2 billion increase on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016, or what appears to be a 6% raise, to $32 billion. Although a House of Representatives panel last week approved a lower figure, it seems the agency may be on track to its first significant increase in more than a decade.

The draft bill approved today by the Senate appropriations panel that oversees NIH’s budget would give the agency twice the $1 billion proposed by the Obama administration and $900 million more than the corresponding House panel, according to a summary statement.

The National Institute on Aging, which the panel notes funds Alzheimer’s disease research, would receive $350 million more, or a roughly 25% increase. (The House version of the bill also favors Alzheimer’s, but takes a different approach, directly earmarking $300 million for the disease—$250 million more than the president’s request.)

The Senate measure matches the president’s request of $200 million for a Precision Medicine Initiative, and $100 million in new funding for NIH’s part of a transagency antibiotics initiative. The BRAIN brain-mapping initiative would receive $135 million, nearly twice the $70 million requested by the president. The Institutional Development Awards for states with relatively little NIH funding, which the president’s budget flat funded at $273 million, would receive a $27 million increase.

Since Congress completed a 5-year doubling of the NIH budget in 2003, the agency’s funding level has fallen more than 20% below the 2003 level after taking into account the rising costs of biomedical research. That has led to fierce competition and record-low success rates for researchers applying for NIH grants.

The bill goes to the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. It would normally head to the Senate floor next, but that may not happen any time soon because of a political dispute between Republicans and Democrats over long-term budgeting issues. Eventually, the House and Senate will need to reconcile the numbers in the two bills; usually they meet somewhere in the middle. Any final NIH spending number for the 2016 fiscal year that begins 1 October may not be clear until late this year.

“The Senate mark is obviously the best subcommittee action we have seen for NIH in more than 12 years. It shows that there is real momentum on a bipartisan basis in the House and the Senate that the restoration of NIH funding is priority,” says Pat White, president of ACT for NIH, a group in Washington, D.C., that lobbies for biomedical research funding.

A measure called the 21st Century Cures Act that is awaiting a vote by the full House would give NIH an additional $2 billion a year through 2020 from funds that are separate from the usual appropriations process.