US research budgets proceed slowly

Meanwhile, House explores NIH restructuring that would combine 27 institutes into two groups

By | July 29, 2005

The 2006 fiscal year is fast approaching, but Congress has yet to finalize budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and other key research agencies. An influential House committee, meanwhile, has been drafting legislation that would radically restructure the NIH.

On June 24, the House approved the 2006 Labor, HHS, Education appropriations bill (HR 3010), which provides $28.5 billion for NIH, a 0.5% increase of $142.3 million, slightly less than the Bush administration's request. The Senate Appropriations Committee on July 14 approved a more generous $29.4 billion budget (S Rept 109-103), a 3.7% boost of $1.05 billion—$905 million more than requested by the administration. Unless spending measures are in place by Oct. 1, Congress will have to pass continuing resolutions to keep the agencies operating at current-year levels, a situation that has occurred in the past several years.

The final NIH budget is likely to be closer to the House number, predicts Dave Moore, associate vice president for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges. "It's looking to be the same as last year; the Senate used accounting measures to squeeze out more appropriations, but the House is not favorable to those gimmicks."

Efforts to reconcile differences may be further delayed this year because the House and Senate restructured the jurisdictions of their appropriations committees differently, making negotiations potentially more cumbersome.

Meanwhile, a bill being prepared in the House Energy and Commerce Committee would collapse NIH's 27 institutes and centers into two broad categories to streamline operations and improve efficiencies. One group of mission-specific institutes would be organized around areas such as cancer and heart, lung and blood, while the other, science-enabling institutes, would focus on such areas as genomics and biomedical engineering. "We've doubled the agency's budget but have not done anything to improve management," committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said in a statement.

The bill, which does not yet have a Senate counterpart, would also grant the NIH director more flexibility to transfer funds among institutes and centers without congressional approval and would establish a division to coordinate research planning. NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni supports the proposed overhaul, some elements of which had been recommended in a 2003 Institutes of Medicine report.

"The landscape has changed over the past 12 years and we need to adapt," Zerhouni told the House committee last week.

But representatives of professional biomedical research organizations and patient groups worry the proposed restructuring will make it harder to advocate for specific research areas. "We're very concerned about many provisions of the draft reauthorization bill," said Jon Retzlaff, legislative relations director at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "It's been a good thing to have all the institutes and centers receive their own appropriations in Congress."

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