Big Increase Coming for NIH — Maybe

Rumors are circulating that the Obama transition team has targeted the National Institutes of Health to receive a significant research-stimulus package: A big one — worth $1 billion. The news had research managers scrambling yesterday to identify how they might get the biggest bang for the buck if the money comes through.

A billion bucks sounds like a lot. And it is, especially in the current economic downturn. But NIH is also quite big, so the increase would amount to a budget only 3.4 percent bigger than what the Bush administration advocated for the agency in each of the last two budget cycles. Indeed, Bush asked to hold the current year’s NIH budget to what it received in fiscal year 2008 (the year that ended in October). Because Congress never got around to passing an amended budget for the agency, NIH and most other research programs indeed are chugging along on that flat budget. Financed right now on what is called a continuing resolution, this agency and many others are surviving on a default monthly allocation equal to what had been doled out a year earlier — one that has not been adjusted upward to account for inflation.

According to the intrepid federal-budget trackers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “In real terms, the federal investment in basic and applied research has already declined since 2004, and under the continuing-resolution, federal funding of research would decline again in 2009 for the fifth year in a row.”

In fact, by the beginning of the current fiscal year, Congress had failed to pass any of some dozen appropriations bills for spending by discrete federal agencies. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution for the affected budgets. Fortunately for some, earlier in the year, a few agencies — including NIH — received a little extra money ($150 million for NIH in June) as part of a supplemental appropriation. However, continuing resolutions don’t account for such Christmas-in-June bonuses when calculating the monthly stipend that will continue until the year’s official spending bill is signed into law. So agencies such as NIH that had received a mid-year bonus will for the foreseeable future have to make due on a budget smaller than last year’s.

Bottom line: It looks like Mr. Obama is attempting to follow through on his pledge to endorse increased and targeted federal support for research at NIH and elsewhere. But presidents don’t allocate spending, Congress does. So it will be up to the incoming administration to make a case to lawmakers, this winter, that Barack Obama’s new blueprint for spending is prudent and that such holiday bonuses to deserving agencies are warranted post-inauguration day.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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