Friday’s eleventh-hour continuing resolution prevented a federal government shutdown, but while both sides have declared victory and pundits have already turned their attention to the looming debt-ceiling debate, Congress still has to prepare and pass the final budget for the last six months of FY 2011. Details about where the agreed upon $38 billion in cuts will come from are still emerging, but one of the hardest hit agencies will likely be the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest investor in biomedical research.
The House FY2011 appropriations bill would cut the NIH budget by $1.6 billion. After accounting for biomedical inflation (each year the prices of research equipment and supplies increase by about 2 percent more than the general inflation rate), this would leave NIH funding at its 2001 level. An earlier Senate budget plan that aimed to cut $10 billion in spending would have maintained NIH funding at the FY 2010 level. But now that the target for cuts has nearly tripled, it’s likely that some of the cuts will come from NIH funds. Researchers and patient advocates are rightfully nervous—the cut would turn already competitive research grants into lotteries and slow scientific progress that translates into medical care.
The NIH’s total budget of $31 billion is responsible for one-third of Health and Human Services discretionary spending. But the suggestion that cutting its budget would make a meaningful dent in the deficit is ridiculous—it accounts for just 2.9 percent of total discretionary spending.
Private sources, like pharmaceutical companies, won’t make up the funding gap. Equivalent private funding simply isn’t available, and open-ended research doesn’t appeal to private funders even if it were. “Government funding is so important because it allows researchers to be creative,” notes Ben Corb of the American Society for Biochemists and Molecular Biology. “You don’t know where it’s going to take you. There’s a litany of accidental discoveries that would never have happened in an industrial setting.”
The current stop-and-start budget process, in which the chambers of Congress couldn’t agree on a full year’s appropriations bill and have opted instead for a series of short-term continuing resolutions, has already begun delaying projects. “NIH institutes and centers are rightly nervous to release new grant dollars when they have ongoing, multi-year grants they are already committed to fund, and they don’t know what their current fiscal year budget will be,” says Rebecca Riggins, a breast cancer researcher at Georgetown who recently had a project delayed for several months.
But the real damage will come after the proposed cuts take effect. The NIH is comprised of twenty-seven institutes and centers with particular focuses, including the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Heart Lung and Blood Institute; each will decide how to manage their individual cuts. The NCI will prioritize funding the same level of new grants (they currently fund 14 percent of new grant applications), but will have to cut funding from cancer centers. Others will have to choose between new and existing grants. When ongoing grants aren’t renewed, work may simply stop. “University departments will do their best to support promising research during a dry spell,” explains Riggins, “and there are a few foundations that provide bridge grants, but these resources aren’t abundant either.”