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Concerns Over 2011 Science Funding as Budget Fight Waits for New Congress

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – US President Barack Obama signed a bill last night that will keep the federal government operating for the next two months at fiscal-year 2010 spending levels, which could put in peril the White House's and Congress' proposed increases for biomedical research in the 2011 budget.

An omnibus US Senate spending bill that was a cheaper version of the President's budget, and which called for a $750 million increase to the National Institutes of Health's appropriation to $31.8 billion, died over the weekend.

As the clock ticked down toward the end of the year and the expiration of government funding, the $1.1 trillion bill was shelved in part due to opposition by Republicans to around $8 billion in earmarks that had been inserted into the bill by legislators, but which were not part of agency budgets.

Also under the omnibus bill that was set aside by the Senate late last week, The National Science Foundation was slated to receive a $418 million boost above last year's level to $7.3 billion, which was $79 million less than the White House had asked for in its budget. The bill also called for $4.9 billion for the Department of Energy's Office of Science and provided an extra $200 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy program.

By signing a continuing resolution to keep the government operating into early March 2011 without a budget, Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate have resolved themselves to wrangling with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the six more Republican senators that will arrive in Washington soon and will likely be ready to push for budget cuts.

Patrick Clemins, Director of The R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggested in an interview with GenomeWeb Daily News today that the Republican rejection of the omnibus bill may have had less to do with earmarks than with their expectation of the arrival of the reinforcements from their party that will arrive in January.

Republican leaders during and after the 2010 mid-term elections called for federal spending to return to 2008 levels, which likely would force agencies that fund science to begin belt-tightening efforts and/or trim the amount of projects they fund.

As GWDN reported earlier this month, NIH Director Francis Collins has said that if his funding is cut to 2008 levels then it could lower the chances of scientists winning a research grant to around 10 percent, while around one in five proposals are successful now.

Recently, Republicans have been talking less about using 2008 funding as a benchmark and saying that they simply would like to see around $100 billion in budget cuts, Clemins said.

"We're hearing a lot of concern from the research community" about possible cuts, Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, told GWDN today. Zeitzer said it would be "devastating for the research community" if funding in certain agencies were to fall to 2008 levels.

"That would be the first actual cut in NIH funding in a long time. It's going to slow progress," she said. "I think some projects may stop outright, and others may not get started."

Zeitzer said that FASEB is attempting to work with researchers to get them to make clear to lawmakers the value of their work.

"It's not just for the research community. It's for all the people who are counting on the new cures and therapies that NIH is working on," she said.

In spite of the gloom, there have been some statements coming out of Congress and the White House that "seem to indicate that research might fare pretty well in these budget cuts," Clemins said.

"There's some guarded optimism within the research community that the research enterprise will see less cuts, or even flat budgets, or maybe even some increases," he said.

He noted that the President's Fiscal Debt Commission said that "high value research shouldn't be cut, along with infrastructure and education," and that their proposal recently has been echoed by both Obama and by House Majority Leader Representative Steny Hoyer (D – Md.).

Clemins said these may be "the big three areas that people are saying that should be saved. Research definitely has strong support, it's just a matter of if it is going to stay a strong priority during these budget cuts."