Obama’s Affordable Care Act holding up NIH appropriations or just another excuse by Republicans?

Posted: June 13, 2012 in Policy, Science
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The US Senate appropriations subcommittee voted to increase National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for fiscal year 2013 by just 0.33%, an increase that leaves research advocates disappointed and frustrated. This small increase was part of the larger subcommittee’s mark for the FY 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill. This 0.33% translates into about 100 million more for NIH, a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.5% (1.4 billion) increase being asked for by research advocacy groups such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), but also above Obama’s request to keep NIH funding flat.

On a recent trip to Washington DC to advocate for increased NIH funding as part of ASBMB’s Hill Day, I heard a lot of ‘just be happy NIH funding has remained flat and has not been cut,’ from conservative members of Congress. In reality, when adjusted for inflation, NIH has been and will continue to be  funded at a lower level than it was prior to the early 2000s. The past 10 years in a row, NIH budgets have not kept pace with the large inflation in biomedical research expenses. Due to NIH funding not keeping up with inflation, the NIH will fund 3100 fewer grants than in FY 2004 and the success rate of grant submissions is down 14% from 2002.

The FY 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill was passed by all 10 Democratic members of the subcommittee, while all 7 Republican members objected. Nature News Blog reports: “Most Republicans oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act strenuously, and those at the hearing made it clear that this opposition was their first and most important reason for voting against the bill.” Senator Richard Shelby (Alabama) said, “I will not vote for a…bill that includes Affordable Care Act funding as this bill does.” Republicans have made it very well known that they do not support the Affordable Care Act, but I worry that even if the US Supreme Court rules the ACA unconstitutional, Republicans will find another reason to not support increased funding to the NIH.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee stated, “our nation cannot sustain its global leadership in research and development if the NIH is funded in dribs and drabs.” Add to this the almost 2.3 billion that will be cut from the NIH come January 2013 if sequestration takes place, I can see why scientists are starting to call my generation (scientists in the early career stages) the ‘lost generation.’ Francis Collins, Director of NIH, states “…I think the burden would hit particularly heavily upon first-time investigators…upon learning of something of this sort, what is already a considerable sense of anxiety in that cohort, who are our future, would only go up.”

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