House Committee Passes NIH Reform Bill

20 September 2006 (All day)

A House panel today agreed to give new authority to the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better coordinate research across its 27 institutes and centers. The panel also endorsed a 5% annual raise for the $28.6 billion agency.

The bill, introduced by Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would be the first comprehensive legislative statement on NIH's programs in over 10 years. The reauthorization doesn't give the biomedical giant a dime. And Congress is unlikely to complete action on the measure until sometime next year. But lobbyists like its contents, including its support for solid spending boosts from 2007 through 2009 after 2 years of essentially flat funding.

Barton has eliminated an earlier controversial proposal that would have divided NIH's budget into two pots, one for disease-oriented institutes and the other "science-enabling" institutes (Science, 22 July 2005, p. 545). The bill, however, would freeze the total number of institutes at 27 and set up a review group to examine NIH's structure every 7 years. It also creates a division to look for redundancies in NIH's overall portfolio and to plan trans-NIH initiatives through pooled funds that would eventually encompass 5% of NIH's budget.

Research advocates hope that Barton's backing will help convince fiscal conservatives to support a 5% raise for NIH this year, in a spending bill pending before the House, as well as in subsequent years. "It's a really positive bill," says Jon Retzlaff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which, along with the Association of American Medical Colleges and other academic and research groups, has endorsed the measure.

Barton said he hopes to win floor passage next week before Congress takes a 6-week election break. But with no companion bill in the Senate, the prospects of the measure becoming law this year appear dim.

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