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House bill gives NIH 3% raise, blocks cuts to overhead payments

A House subcommittee's budget proposal for the National Institues of Health is much more friendly to the agency than that of the Trump administration.

Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH's) budget would get a modest 3.2% raise, to $35.2 billion, in a draft spending bill released by a House of Representatives committee today. To the relief of U.S. research universities, the measure would also explicitly block a proposal by the Trump administration to slash by two-thirds the payments that NIH disburses to cover the overhead costs of the research it funds. Furthermore, the bill ignores a Trump plan to abolish NIH’s widely lauded global health center.

Although the $1.1 billion increase is only about half of the raises Congress has given the agency the past 2 years, the Trump administration had proposed cutting NIH’s budget by $7.5 billion, a drop of 22% from this year’s level. The White House had argued that this could be accomplished without much impact on number of grants or research overall by slashing how much NIH compensates universities for “indirect costs,” the administrative and facilities costs associated with the direct costs of a project, from 28% of its overall extramural research spending to a flat rate of 10% of a total individual grant.

The plan deeply worried universities and research institutions, which now individually negotiate indirect rates for their institutions with the government. They argued that even at current levels, these payments don’t come close to covering the full cost of utilities, ethics review boards, animal care facilities, administrative staff, hazardous waste disposal, high-speed computers, and other services needed to support NIH-funded research projects. Universities warned that any cuts could force many institutions to curtail NIH research on their campuses.

The bill, which was released today by the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, stipulates that NIH must continue to follow an existing federal regulation for negotiating indirect cost rates as it has in the last months of this fiscal year, which ends 30 September. Nor can the agency use any of its 2018 budget to “develop or implement a modified approach to such provisions,” the bill states.

Research universities applauded the draft House bill, which the subcommittee will meet to consider tomorrow. “We are very pleased,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C., in a statement. “In rejecting the proposal to dramatically slash federal funding” for indirect costs, the subcommittee “made it clear that it recognizes these are actual research costs universities incur,” he said.

The House measure preserves $73 million for the small but influential Fogarty International Center, which the Trump budget proposal would have abolished. And the subcommittee disregarded a Trump plan to fold the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality into a proposed new NIH institute for safety and quality.

Compared with this year’s NIH budget, the bill also includes $400 million more for Alzheimer’s research, a 29% increase; $76 million in new funding, for a total of $336 million in 2018, for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative; $80 million, or 25% more than this year’s budget, for the All of Us precision medicine study; and $300 million in total funding for the cancer moonshot.

“It’s a great place to start. A $1.1 billion increase is a really good position to be in,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. The corresponding Senate subcommittee has not yet released its version of the measure.