On February 25 NIH reversed a decision, made January 21, that took between 4 and nearly 20 percent from each grant to make sure the agency did not run out of money before the end of the fiscal year September 30. The Reagan administration has proposed that $334 million of NIH's $6.2 billion budget for this year be held until next year, although Congress is unlikely to go along with such a reduction. NIH Deputy Director William Raub said that congressional approval later this spring would require grants awarded in the final quarter of the year to be cut by "as much as 40 percent."
Biomedical and university groups last month threatened to sue the administration on the grounds that the plan violated the will of Congress. But James Miller, director of the Office of Management and Budget, signaled the administration's retreat February 24 in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen.
The letter noted Reagan's January 5 promise that the administration would take no action "to defer or otherwise restrict the funds currently available" until after Congress has acted. If the Department is doing so, Miller told Bowen, "please cease such actions."
"You have to have a sense of humor in this job," said Tony McCann, assistant secretary for management and budget under Bowen, referring to the fact that 0MB officials have admitted they had been told of NIH's plan to withhold money before it went into effect. Raub termed the wording of the letter "somewhat cryptic."
Testifying March 5 before a House appropriations subcommittee, NIH Director James Wyngaarden said the administration's proposed 1988 budget would be 10 percent under this year's figure if it were adopted without the transfer of funds from the current year. "That's a fine birthday present," cracked subcommittee chairman Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.), referring to the institute's year-long 100th anniversary celebration.
Wyngaarden said that NIH would be able to fund only 11 percent of the grant proposals recommended for approval by its peer review process under such a reduced budget, compared with its current level of 31 percent. Pressed by Natcher, he estimated that 50 percent of all proposals are worthy of funding.