The first nugget of news from Congress on the 2004 budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) signals a sharp slowdown. NIH has seen its budget double over the past 5 years, but a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee today marked up a bill giving NIH a 2.5% increase, to $27.7 billion. That rise would be "a crash landing," say biomedical research advocates, who are hoping the Senate will scrape up more.
Since 1999, NIH has enjoyed a roughly 15% increase each year. But in his 2004 budget request, President George W. Bush asked for a $549 million boost, far smaller, percentage-wise, than previous years. The House subcommittee's recommendation boosted that slightly, to $682 million. Both the White House and the House subcommittee note that research will actually go up 7%, because $1.3 billion in the 2003 budget for construction and other one-time expenses will be freed up for research grants. Still, because much of the increase is slated for bioterrorism research, only 21 new grants for nonbioterrorism research could be funded--"less than one new nonbiodefense grant per institute," says Steven Teitelbaum, a pathologist at Washington University in St. Louis and president of the Federation of American Societies for Experiment Biology.
NIH watchers don't blame House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education subcommittee chair Ralph Regula (R-OH); they note that his panel was hobbled by a small total allocation. In the Senate, which has not yet received its overall allocation, they are hoping for a higher boost. In past years, the Senate has usually given NIH a larger increase than the House, and those increases have sometimes emerged from the final compromise bill.