NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Leaders at the National Institutes of Health are watching and waiting with some trepidation as Congress begins hammering away on a budget for fiscal year 2012, and have recently expressed concern that pressures to cut the federal deficit could slash biomedical research funding to its lowest level in years.
Just as the House of Representatives begins its budget mark-up meetings season, which will last into August, NIH Director Francis Collins and National Human Genome Research Institute Director Eric Green both have recently called the outlook "sobering."
Green told NHGRI's advisory council this week that the institute will be "white-knuckling" through the process, and said that "bad clouds are on the horizon" for NIH funding next year, even though the White House's budget proposal would increase the institute's budget by 2.4 percent – which would, in effect, amount to a small cut after factoring in biomedical inflation.
Green and Collins worry about proposals that have been coming from House and Senate Republicans that, while not singling out NIH or biomedical research, call for large reductions in non-defense discretionary spending. They are concerned that cuts will lead to NIH funding fewer grants and will reduce the rates at which proposals are funded.
"It's not a very pretty picture," Green told the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research Monday, as he described the funding tableau for 2012 and pointed out that the .8 percent reduction NIH took this year in the continuing resolution "is the first cut to NIH in a long, long, time."
"One particularly sobering fact is that overall success rate for NIH grant applications may fall as low as 17 or 18 percent, which would be the lowest in history," Green said, echoing statements Collins made to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
Collins told the committee that in fiscal year 2010, when NIH had a budget of $30.8 billion, the institute awarded around 9,300 grants at a success rate of around 20 percent.
"We won't do that well [in 2011]," Collins said. "If you have six grants in front of you, we're going to fund one of them and five of them are going to go begging."
In the Republican-controlled House, the Committee on Appropriations has set its total caps for all of the government's discretionary spending (302(b) allocations), and although these only provide department-level numbers, the departments that fund science are all marked for slashing.
The Department that funds NIH — Labor, HHS, and Education — would be cut by $18.2 billion from this year's level and $41.5 billion from what President Barack Obama has proposed, a reduction that would be certain to result in less biomedical research dollars. The House numbers also would cut Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration funding by $2.6 billion from this year, and Commerce, Justice, and Science budgets, which provides for the National Science Foundation, by $3.1 billion
The Senate has moved more slowly. Although a budget appropriation plan was expected at any moment from Appropriations Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D – ND), he announced last night that he will not provide his proposal until a bipartisan group of senators working with Vice President Joseph Biden on a deficit reduction agreement release a plan or give up.
"The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead," Conrad said in a statement. "That was the case for both the 1990 and 1997 deficit reduction plans, where a budget resolution and accompanying reconciliation process were used to implement the agreements."
One Senator, however, has released a budget plan that would most certainly result in very deep spending cuts across the government.
Senator Pat Toomey (R – Pa.) has proposed a budget that he said will balance the federal budget by 2020 by cutting non-defense discretionary spending to 2006 levels, or around $435 billion, compared to $1.4 billion in 2010. Toomey's plan also would freeze spending at that level for six years, and then peg increases in spending to the consumer price index after that.
NIH's funding for 2006 was around $28.4 billion, compared to $31 billion this year, but the loss would be much greater than that difference, because any accurate comparison would need to account for the compounding effect of biomedical inflation, which was just under three percent this year and tends to be greater than inflation in the broader economy.
Under such a freeze, "NIH would lose a couple of billion dollars right off the bat," Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News today. Having the same amount of funding for NIH between now and 2018 as it received in 2006 "would be devastating to scientific research," she said.
Such a freeze also would keep NIH from having any flexibility to address new issues that may arise, she argued.
"If some new strain of AIDS or something catastrophic happens, how is NIH going to fund research to help come up with new treatments and help understand how the disease progresses? It would not allow NIH to pursue new science," said Zeitzer.
Green told the NHGRI council Monday that the White House's proposed 2012 budget would result in a 1.7 percent increase at his institute, resulting in a budget of $525 million. Under that plan, roughly 40 percent of the funding would go to NHGRI's research centers, 29 percent would fund research project grants, 20 percent would support intramural research, and a little over nine percent would go to R&D contracts research management and support activities.
"That's the president's budget, but of course we have absolutely no idea what this is going to lead to," said Green. "It's gratifying to see strong support from the White House for the NIH, but there are the realities of the new Congress."
In his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Collins heralded the benefits of federally funded biomedical science, placing a special emphasis on genomics and translational research.
He discussed how death rates for cancer, stroke, and coronary diseases have fallen dramatically in recent decades, and how NIH research funding supported 487,900 American jobs in 2010.
Collins told the senators about progress in genomics in particular, and pointed out the profound reduction in the cost of sequencing a human genome and discussed the advances being made in The Cancer Genome Atlas project.
Collins also suggested that biomedicine and biology are areas where the US could lose its position as the world's R&D leader. He said that he recently was in Shenzhen, China, to visit BGI, which he said was "built in just three years from an abandoned shoe factory [and now] is capable of sequencing more than 10,000 human genomes a year."
"The capacity of that one Chinese institution now surpasses the combined capacity of all genome sequencing centers in the United States," said Collins. "This critical area of scientific innovation, stimulated by the US-led Human Genome Project, is now being developed more aggressively in China than it is here."