Science bills hatch from lame duck

U.S. lawmakers pass NIH reform, biodefense initiative before adjourning for the year

By | December 12, 2006

Members of the U.S. House and Senate concluded their post-election lame duck session over the weekend, having passed several key bills of importance to the biomedical research community but leaving many other matters, including passing budgets for the National Institutes of Health, to be taken up when the new, Democrat-controlled Congress returns in January. In a frenzy of last-minute work that took them into early Saturday morning (Dec. 9), lawmakers passed a bill to "reform" the NIH and give it a modest budget increase, subject to appropriations. They also approved a measure to create incentives for private biodefense research and development. Earlier in the lame duck session, Congress approved harsher penalties for animal rights terrorism and the Senate confirmed Andrew von Eschenbach to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. The National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006 (HR 6164), authorizes a 7% budget increase of $2 billion for Fiscal 2007, an 8.2% increase of $2.5 billion for Fiscal 2008, and "such sums as may be necessary" for FY 2009. The Bush Administration has requested a level budget for NIH at around $28.6 billion in Fiscal 2007, which began Oct. 1, 2006. While the White House and the appropriations committees of the House and Senate determine funding levels for NIH and other agencies, the reauthorization "is a positive thing because it sets a robust benchmark or target for NIH in terms of what Congress believes the funding should be," said David Moore, vice president for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges. The reauthorization bill, which the Senate approved Friday and the House early Saturday morning, also requires the NIH to create a $1.5 billion "common fund" to support promising research across multiple institutes and centers (ICs); mandates that the agency create a standardized electronic system to catalog all research activities; and limits the NIH structure to its current 27 ICs. "The NIH has grown like topsy," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and author of the legislation, said in a statement. "While the motivation behind this explosive growth was certainly sincere, the individual organizations were created arbitrarily, usually without benefit of systematic analysis or review." Research institutions and advocacy groups applauded the reauthorization. "We're very pleased with the outcome," said Howard Garrison, public affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). "Things have needed to be changed at NIH for some time," he told The Scientist. Also early Saturday morning, the House passed the Senate version of the "Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act" (S 3678), which offers funds to help private biotech companies develop bioterror-related vaccines and therapies. Among other things, the bill creates a Biodefense Medical Countermeasure Development Fund with $500 million in annual grants to help companies bridge the funding gap between discovery and procurement. Congress left virtually untouched the American Competitiveness and Innovation Act (S 3936), a bill that would earmark $20 billion in new spending over five years to enhance innovation and competitiveness by boosting Federal research, as well as science and math education. Congress also failed to make inroads on budget appropriations for NIH, the National Science Foundation, and other science agencies for Fiscal 2007. Only the budgets for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security were approved this year, leaving the others to operate at Fiscal 2006 levels under a third continuing resolution, which expires Feb. 15, 2007, or until new budgets are approved. "We're disappointed they haven't settled the Fiscal '07 budget yet," Moore told The Scientist. "We are into the third month of the fiscal year and we don't know how much money we will be dealing with. That plays havoc in the awarding of grants and planning for '08 at both the NIH level and the institutional level." With Fiscal 2008 budget requests due from the Administration in February, the Democratic leadership of the 110th Congress will be forced to juggle finalizing the current budget and dealing with the new requests. "It will be a challenging set of questions that will confront Congress when they come back," Moore said. Ted Agres Links within this article: T. Agres, "Science bills head to lame duck session," The Scientist, Nov. 9, 2006 T. Agres, "Congress passes animal terrorism bill," The Scientist, Nov. 16, 2006 T. Agres, "Senate confirms von Eschenbach," The Scientist, Dec. 8, 2006 "National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006" (HR 6164) T. Agres, "NIH held to flat funding in '07," The Scientist, Feb. 7, 2006 "Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act" (S 3678) T. Agres, "US weighs biodefense matters," The Scientist, Nov. 2, 2005 "American Competitiveness and Innovation Act" (S 3936) Appropriations bills

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