NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The US Senate last week passed legislation that aims to reform how much money the National Institutes of Health will receive from the federal government over the next two years, how it should spend it, and how its activities should be monitored.
The NIH Reform Act of 2006, which was passed by the House in September and will soon be considered by the White House, aims to centralize power over the agency’s purse strings, strengthen the power of the director, streamline accountability, and create greater transparency at the agency.
The Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees legislation that deals with the NIH, said in a summary that the bill creates a standardized accounting system for the myriad centers the NIH oversees, and calls on the director to produce a comprehensive biennial report that “lays out the strategic plans and research activities of the agency.” The committee said this will “provide greater accountability of research dollars.”
The committee also said the act will empower the director to authorize and identify research areas that “are either underemphasized, overemphasized, and suggest appropriate changes.”
The bill would also create a “common fund” that will eventually account for five percent of the NIH budget in order to “provide a permanent funding mechanism for trans-NIH research projects.” The committee describes these as “emerging scientific opportunities, rising public health challenges, or knowledge gaps that deserve special emphasis and would benefit from additional research. … ”
The legislation would also create a bureaucracy to monitor the agency. Specifically, it would create a Scientific Management Review Group to “evaluate the structural design of the existing institutes and centers at NIH” at least every seven years.
The bill also limits the size of the NIH to its current 27 institutes and centers.
Critics have said that the bill, drafted by Rep. Joseph Barton (R-Tex.), amounts to a funding cut because it calls for smaller budget increases compared with recent years. They also complain that it gives too much power to the director.
The legislation would increase the NIH’s budget by five percent each year from fiscal 2007 to 2009. A Congressional Budget Office estimate shows that the NIH is set to receive $29.7 billion in fiscal 2007, $31.2 billion in fiscal 2008, and $32.8 billion in fiscal 2009. By comparison, in fiscal 2006 the NIH received $28.5 billion, which was unchanged from fiscal 2005. The CBO said that enacting the bill would not affect direct spending or receipts.
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said the legislation “preserves the core authorities of NIH, such as peer review, while providing tools to maximize our potential through the integration of resources.”
Voicing concerns about the bill was the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, which said the 5-percent budget caps w9uld be a departure from recent years, during which the “NIH has received an increase of greater than 5 percent in 19 of the last 25 years.”
The CCFA also said the act centralizes too much power in one position, allowing the director to move funds around between institutes without oversight, and to eliminate centers or institutes without oversight.
The CCFA calls the limit of 27 NIH institutes “arbitrary” and said that limit may endanger existing institutes and centers.
Another CCFA criticism was that the bill was being shuttled quickly through the Senate at the tail end of a lame-duck session, and said that “given the important role of the NIH, the Senate should be given more time for reauthorization."