Under the looking glass

Senate panel voices concerns for 2013 NIH budget

Kelsey Kaustinen
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WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Institutes of Health (NIH)presented its 2013 budget plan to a Senate appropriations subcommittee on March28 amidst general approval and some allocation concerns. The hearing featuredDr. Francis Collins, director of NIH, as well as several other institutedirectors.
The administration's proposed budget for NIH in 2013 is$30.86 billion, the same program level as 2012. 
"In fiscal year '13, NIH expects to support an estimated9,415 new and competing research projects grants," said Collins in a webcast ofthe hearing on the United States Senate's Committee on Appropriations website.The figure represents 672 more grants than were estimated for 2012, and NIHexpects to support roughly 35,888 research project grants total for 2013.
The flat funding has garnered concerns about grants,particularly as research costs generally continue to increase each year, evenas NIH seeks to fund more proposals. As such, many of the concerns raised atthe hearing focused on where cuts would be made.
One of the proposed allocations that raised a point ofcontention is an extra $80 million for Alzheimer's research, which would comefrom a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fund meant to supportdisease prevention activities. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chair of thesubcommittee on labor, health and human services, supports the fund and saidmoving that money toward research was not an appropriate use for it.
"I'm a strong supporter of Alzheimer's research, but this$80 million isn't happening," Harkin said at the hearing. "NIH has theflexibility to direct a larger share of its funding to Alzheimer's researchwithin its own budget."
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., questioned the NIH's apparentplan to increase the number of proposals it will fund by putting a cap on theamount of funding an investigator could receive at $1.5 million. According toan NIH budget document of Collins' statements, the $1.5 million does notrepresent a cutoff, but a figure at which investigators will trigger review.Roughly 6 percent of principal investigators receive NIH funding at thatamount. 
"The $1.5 million cap is actually not a cap at all. Thepoint is just that individual investigators who have more than $1.5 million inNIH research funding are automatically going to be limited," says FrancisPatrick White, associate director for legislative policy and analysis at theNIH. "It's only that they will draw a little bit more scrutiny to make surethat the research that's being proposed is not being done elsewhere or might bebetter handled by other researchers."
The NIH also plans to trim its Institutional Development andAward (IDeA) program back to the 2011 level of $225 million, a move that raisedconcerns with Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., though Harkin sided with the NIH inthat "we're not in the business of just spreading money around."
"From a programmatic point of view, the administration'sunderstanding was that the (IDeA) increase between 2011 and 2012 was temporary,and it's apparent that individual senators do not feel that that's the case,"White explains. "And so it's not as though the program was being cut,necessarily, nor is it being trimmed or capped to fund other things."
The sequestration cuts that loom on the horizon if Congresscontinues to fail at finding a plan to cut the federal deficit were also a bigconcern raised by Harkin, one that Collins said was well founded. If the cutskick in, the NIH stands to face a 7.8 percent budget cut, losing nearly $2.4billion in funding, a loss that Collins said would result in roughly 2,300grants being lost in 2013, representing almost a quarter of the estimated newand competing grants. Several emerging projects with significant potential"would be put at great risk."
While differences of opinion were obvious in terms of whereadditional funds should be taken from, there was definite support of the workthe NIH does and the positive effects the organization continues to have onboth the economy and biomedical industry. Harkin called NIH "one of the greatinstitutions of this country," thanking the directors for their leadership andnoting that "because of all of you, America is a world leader in biomedicalresearch."
"Generally speaking, and I think this is theadministration's point of view as well, were it not for the fiscal constraintsunder which our country is currently operating, I think there has beenhistorically—and regardless of administration in and administration out—therehas always been very, very strong support for the National Institutes of Healthand biomedical research," says White. "And over and over again, individualmembers from both parties express that view."

Kelsey Kaustinen

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