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Shift in NIH Policy; More Funds for Interdisciplinary Science

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In January, US President George W. Bush signed into law the NIH Reform Bill, the first such overhaul of the NIH in the past 13 years. Though NIH funding will remain relatively flat in 2007, the bill will shift funding policy and essentially give Director Elias Zerhouni control of an eventual five percent of the agency’s total annual budget.

Though the budget increase is good news for systems biology, there is concern that the new focus on cross-agency research will come at the cost of established programs at NIH’s individual institutes and centers.

The reform bill, spearheaded by Republican representative Joe Barton, aims to rein in the sprawling nature of the NIH. Currently, the agency spreads a $30 billion budget among 27 separate institutes. A last-minute $600 million boost this year brings the total NIH budget to $29.2 billion, up 2.2 percent.

“I think this bill satisfies Congress, as it increases transparency and accountability,” says Jon Retzlaff, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “And it will provide Congress with confidence that the NIH is now ready for its budget to be increased.”

Most NIH institutes and centers appear to receive the same budgets in 2007 as last year, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but transfer of trans-NIH funding from individual centers to a Common Fund at the Office of the Director this year should actually allow most centers to increase their research funding by 1.2 percent.

Pending Congressional approval, a new joint funding resolution proposes a change in the appropriations structure, effectively giving more money to the director’s office, but allowing the institutes and centers to keep what was originally slated to be transferred out from their budgets. Under the previous funding resolution formula, as the Common Fund grew, so would the amount of money taken from the individual centers’ funds, resulting in a net loss.

“The change in formula is a critical one, as it no longer taps institutes’ or centers’ budgets,” says Dave Moore, senior associate vice president in the Division of Governmental Relations of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “The reaction that I’ve heard from a variety of patient groups has really been mixed.”

Some patient advocacy and other groups fear that money will be subtracted from ongoing research programs, but FASEB’s Retzloff argues otherwise. “There are going to be initiatives funded out of the Common Fund, and there are real opportunities for all areas of research,” he says.

As Moore sees it, Congress is showing its support for the NIH. “As we go forward, I think a lot of the advocates are hopeful that perhaps we’re looking at an upswing for support of the NIH,” he says.

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