The U.S. Congress approved a 14.2% increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on 15 December. The record $20.3 billion budget for 2001 keeps the agency on track to double its budget by 2003. The vote overcame last-minute opposition from fiscal conservatives and upheld a funding deal lawmakers had sealed on 29 October over a bottle of wine.
NIH's raise was part of a $450 billion spending package that rolled together the last three of the 13 annual appropriations bills that make up the federal government's $1.8 trillion budget for the 2001 fiscal year, which began 1 October. Disagreements over education, workplace safety, and immigration issues had pushed the final agreement beyond election day, forcing Congress to pass a near-record 20 temporary funding bills to sustain operations. Its 15 December adjournment ended the longest congressional session since 1982.
The last few weeks were especially torturous for many biomedical research advocates, who feared that lawmakers might scrap a pact--dubbed "the Merlot agreement" after the bottle of wine opened to seal the deal--to increase NIH's budget by 15%, to $20.5 billion. That amount topped the Administration's request by $1.7 billion. House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) led the charge, announcing that House conservatives would oppose the final bills unless the total amount they contained was significantly reduced. He suggested a freeze at existing levels pending a new budget from President-elect George W. Bush.
All of NIH's 24 institutes will share in the wealth. The budget of the National Cancer Institute, NIH's largest, will grow 13.5% to $3.76 billion, while the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute retains second place with an identical boost, to $2.3 billion. Other major institutes and centers received increases of between 13.5% and 16.6%. The fledgling institute on complementary and alternative medicine will grow the fastest, with a 29.3% boost to $89 million, while a center on minority health and health disparities will start life with $130 million.
In the end, budget negotiators agreed to sustain NIH's increase at near-Merlot levels. "It's a wonderful outcome ... when you think of everything we've been worried about over the last several weeks," says Mary Hendrix, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.