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Medical research advocates rip Obama's budget for NIH


By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: March 4, 2014 - 4:45 pm ET
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President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 (PDF) calls for the National Institutes of Health to receive $30.2 billion in funding, a close to 1% increase from fiscal 2014 that falls short of pre-sequestration funding levels.

Medical research advocates who had hoped for a figure of about $32 billion as a stay-even level when inflation is taken into account were quick to criticize the proposal.

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“Fundamentally, it does not bring us back to where we need to be,” said Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a policy group that advocates for biomedical research. “That's a problem in terms of continuing to grow the research enterprise and take advantage of all of the scientific opportunities that we have.”

Increasing funding to $32 billion would help to restore the $1.55 billion cut from the NIH's budget during the sequestration, she noted. Lawmakers were able, however, to restore close $1 billion as part of a bipartisan budget deal reached at the end of 2013.

Some advocates have proposed that the level of funding allocated to NIH should be closer to $40 billion to address past years of budget decreases, but the president's funding request reflects limitations on spending brought about by the bipartisan deal reached last year to end the sequestration cuts. The deal sets a cap of $491 billion for non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal 2014 and $492 billion for 2015.

“There's virtually no increase between the 2014 and 2015 cap,” said David Moore, senior director of government relations for the Association for American Medical Colleges, a leading trade organization for research universities. “Unless there's some relief on the spending cap, it's going to be almost impossible to see significant growth within the NIH's budget.”

NIH has lost about 22% of its purchasing power since 2003 because of its inability to keep pace with costs of inflation for biomedical research and development, Moore said. The result has been a decrease in grants awards, which slows progress in developing new treatment and cures.

“Biomedical research is subject to cost-of-living pressures the same as everything else,” said James Siedow, vice provost for Research at Duke University. “An absolutely level budget means that over time you're still losing ground.”

The administration's plan unveiled Tuesday seeks to increase investment in “high-risk, high-reward research to spur development of new therapeutics to treat diseases and disorders,” according to the budget summary.

Part of that investment will focus on funding for research of Alzheimer's disease, as well as an NIH contribution to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, a joint venture with the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation to map neural processes occurring within the human brain. The proposal also allocates $970 million to support about 650 new grants.

While the $30.2 billion overall agency budget would represent more than the $29.9 billion NIH has operated with during 2014, it is still less than the $30.86 billion NIH received in funding in 2012 before sequestration.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHSjohnson


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