A Senate panel today approved a 2012 spending bill that would slightly trim the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cutting it by $190 million to $30.5 billion. The bill would also realize a top priority of NIH Director Francis Collins by creating a new center devoted to translating basic discoveries into therapies.
Biomedical research lobbyists say that given overall budget pressures, they feel fortunate that NIH received essentially flat funding. "In the current environment, it could have been worse," says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Washington, D.C.
While creating a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the bill also abolishes the National Center for Research Resources—carrying out a major reorganization of NIH's 27 institutes and centers proposed by NIH that has been highly controversial . NCATS is one of several initiatives in the bill that "will leverage systemic changes," according to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services (HHS), and education.
Within NCATs, the bill contains $20 million for the Cures Acceleration Network, a program created  last year by the health care reform law that hasn't yet received any funding. It will focus on awarding grants to develop "high-need cures" that aren't far enough along to be picked up by companies, according to a press release  from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The full committee will vote on the bill tomorrow, at which point more detailed numbers will become available.
The corresponding House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee planned to approve its labor/HHS bill last week but couldn't reach agreement and has dropped the effort, Harkin said. Instead, the two chambers are expected to hammer out a so-called omnibus appropriations bill that rolls funding for many government agencies into a single bill. The Senate mark for NIH could give lawmakers a starting point for NIH's funding level in the omnibus bill.
The 2012 fiscal year begins 1 October, but lawmakers won't make that deadline for approving new appropriations. Instead, they are expected to approve a continuing resolution that funds agencies at 1.4% below 2011 levels through 18 November, at which point Congress could extend the continuing resolution or approve the omnibus bill.