Senator Wants the National Institutes of Health to Spend More on Small Businesses

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

A U.S. senator from Maryland wants the home-state National Institutes of Health (NIH) to spend what he sees as its rightful share of stimulus funds on small businesses trying to commercialize medical research.

A bill introduced today by Senator Ben Cardin (D–MD) is a shot across the bow at the $30 billion a year agency and the biomedical community. It would repeal a provision of the Recovery Act  that exempted NIH from the normal 2.8% set-aside for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants programs, which covers 11 federal agencies. The exemption amounted to almost $250 million of the $8.2 billion that NIH received as part of the stimulus package. Cardin's bill would require NIH to spend $150 million of its Recovery Act money on SBIR grants.

Legislators from the small business panels in both the House of Representatives and Senate are still steaming about the exemption, which was added to the bill at the last minute.

They see it as an attempt to undermine a program that biomedical lobbyists have complained is supporting low-quality research at a time when excellent proposals from top scientists are being rejected for lack of funds. "We've heard that there is a bias within the review panels, which are made up mostly of academics who see this program as less meritorious than NIH's regular grants," says an aide to Cardin, who was infuriated that NIH declined to testify in person at a field hearing this summer that he conducted only a mile from the Bethesda, Maryland, campus. NIH officials testified this fall that they plan to spend roughly $200 million this year on programs that support small businesses.

The legislation is part of a broader effort to support small businesses. It is separate from an effort to reauthorize the SBIR program that has languished because of differences between the Senate and House on several provisions.

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