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UPDATE: Proposal in Works to Loosen NIH Budget Cap, Open Door to Significant Funding Boost

This article has been updated to more accurately characterize Senator Shelby's recent statements on NIH funding and the budget process.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A bill expected to be introduced in the Senate soon could enable lawmakers to provide substantial funding increases for the National Institutes of Health over the next few years by raising the spending limits on the agency's budget.

The proposal could allow NIH to see a budget increase of as much as 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, and five percent every year for five more years afterward.

US Senator Tom Harkin (D – Iowa) plans to introduce the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act sometime later this month in an effort to let NIH restore some of the funding it has lost in recent years due to flat budgets and sequestration, Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.

Based on the notion that spending on NIH has strong bipartisan support even at a time when Congress has sunk into a cycle of annual budget battles, Harkin's bill would free up appropriators in the Senate and House of Representatives and target NIH for funding boosts while other agencies would remain stuck under hard spending caps imposed last year. Like nearly every other government agency, NIH's budget has remained relatively flat over the past several years, not including the cuts caused by sequestration last year.

If Harkin's legislation, currently still in draft form, passes, NIH could see an increase of nearly $3 billion next year. By 2021, this plan would enable NIH to receive as much as $46.2 billion, or $16.3 billion more than the $29.93 billion it will receive this year.

Zeitzer told GWDN that Harkin is currently seeking co-sponsors, ideally some Republicans, to join him in introducing the bill. That could be possible, as NIH funding is still popular among Republicans who regularly call for cutting government spending.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R – Ala.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, has been a notable supporter of science funding and in years past has said he would work with Democrats on maintaining NIH funding in the face of cuts. However, he noted earlier this year that the federal spending caps have left little room to provide additional funding.

The funding caps currently in place across the federal government were enacted late last year when a conference committee led by Sen. Patty Murray (D – Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R – Wis.) reached a spending compromise that put the sequestration on hold but also set limits for the next eight years.

That agreement set a total limit for annual federal discretionary spending. The House and Senate appropriations committees are tasked with setting limits for individual government departments, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, and those limits are then passed on to agencies such as NIH. The Accelerating Biomedical Research Act would give Congress flexibility to provide more funding only to NIH, while all other department-level caps remain in place. This could be a weakness in Harkin's approach; any increase for NIH must be offset by cuts somewhere else in the budget, which could be a tough sell.

According to FASEB, many lawmakers have asked Harkin about potential ways that biomedical research could be protected against budget pressure, and he now thinks that re-evaluating the budget caps and prioritizing NIH within them is one way to do that.

FASEB also has pointed out that the proposal, in its current form, would enable appropriators to make up for several years of flat NIH budgets and sequestration and restore the purchasing power NIH would have had if its budget had kept pace with inflation since 2003.

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