NIH's Building One in Bethesda, Md.

NIH's Building One in Bethesda, Md. Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

Another Budget Bump May Be Coming for the NIH

Senate appropriators are once again hoping to establish a pattern of funding increases for the agency.

For the second year in a row, the National Institutes of Health could get a $2 billion bump in its budget. That’s the number a Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved Tuesday in its fiscal-year 2017 budget bill, which is now headed to the full committee. The panel’s House counterparts will release their own figure for the biomedical-research agency in the coming months, but if last year’s budget process is any guide, the Senate number could stick. 

The increase is welcome news in the research community, which until last year saw stagnant budgets at the NIH, the world’s largest source of public research funding. The agency funds internal research and sends money to scientists at institutes and universities worldwide. Biomedical research had long been a bipartisan priority, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Congress doubled the NIH’s budget. But it waned in the years since. As a result, the NIH was not able to finance as many research grants as it—and researchers—wanted; and constant congressional budget fights generated uncertainty, making planning multi-year scientific projects difficult and discouraging researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their careers.

But starting with the 2016 appropriations debate, research advocates started to see changes in Congress, which they hoped would start to reverse the flat budgets’ ill effects. Members, inspired in part by their constituents, rallied around the agency on a bipartisan basis. “People are saying ‘Enough, we have got to find answers and even if it means we’re gonna spend more money than some would like’ ... it’s worth doing,” Mary Woolley, the president of the advocacy group Research!America, told me last year. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $2 billion increase for 2016, while its House counterpart called for a $1.1 billion hike. The Senate’s figure passed in December as part of Congress’s 2016 omnibus package.

Top Republican appropriators at the time predicted another bump for the NIH in 2017. They have advocated, as agency Director Francis Collins has, for steady increases for the agency. In response to last year’s budget, Collins told me the funding increase would be “even more wonderful if this actually begins a trend to get us back on a stable, predictable, upward trajectory.” The agency’s total 2017 budget in the Senate’s bill is roughly $34 billion, more than the president requested. (The NIH does not comment on pending legislation, the agency said in a statement.)

The bill also includes specific increases for opioid-abuse programs, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and Alzheimer’s disease research. It does not include dedicated funding for research into Zika, which lawmakers have been debating for months. The Senate passed $1.1 billion in emergency funding for Zika in late May. The House soon signed off on much less, paid for by spending cuts and leftover Ebola money. Tom Cole, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that manages health-agency budgets, told me last month that Zika-related funds will be included in the lower chamber’s overall 2017 budget.

Republican appropriators have repeatedly said that an increase for the NIH would necessitate cuts to other parts of the budget, but lawmakers did not elaborate on them in Tuesday’s markup meeting. Patty Murray, the Senate subcommittee ranking member who led the 2017 negotiations with subcommittee chairman Roy Blunt, noted that the bill was a “bipartisan compromise” under “very tight budget caps.”

Still, lawmakers largely seemed gratified at the numbers. Blunt said at the meeting that lawmakers want to create a “pattern of increasing” research budgets “until there is no more health research to be done.” That, he noted, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But “if you’re going to have a pattern, Year Two becomes critical.”