NIH Faces a Tough Budget Year

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

In stark contrast to his initiative for physical sciences [ScienceNOW, 1 February and 3 February], President Bush today proposed a budget freeze for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2007, holding its funding steady at $28.6 billion. The proposal, part of the President's overall budget request to Congress, is drawing concern and even outrage from biomedical research advocacy groups, who worry that NIH is losing ground after its budget was doubled from 1999 to 2003. Now the budget proposal, which curbs domestic discretionary spending while boosting funding for national defense, must wind its way through Congress before being approved in some form later this year.

"We're not in a position to do as much as many of us would like," said Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, at a budget briefing today. When asked why biomedicine was not included among the science agencies funded by the president's American Competitiveness Initiative, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni explained that the physical sciences are "complementary" to NIH's mission. "I don't think biomedicine is necessarily less urgent ... but you have to make choices that are not necessarily going to make everybody happy."

Within the $28.587 million requested for NIH in 2007, biodefense would garner a significant increase--$110 million for a new biodefense fund to help universities and companies commercialize countermeasures. Another $49 million would expand an initiative on genes, environment, and health, and $15 million would fund a new bridge award for young investigators. But overall, most of NIH's 27 institutes and centers will get a slight cut under the president's plan. In parallel, success rates on grants--an investigator's odds of winning funding for a grant proposal--would remain at 19% in 2007, down from 22% in 2005.

Advocacy groups warn about the danger to U.S. biomedical research from a flat budget coming on the heels of the first cut to NIH in 36 years. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Washington, D.C., expressed "disappointment and outrage," saying the president's NIH request will slow research and "discourage the best and brightest from scientific careers." And while Patrick White of the Association of American Universities praises the "incredible" boost proposed for the physical sciences, he says the "hard freeze" for NIH "begins the undoubling of the NIH budget." A coalition of advocacy groups wants Congress to give NIH a 5% increase.

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