A strong science budget, but NIH heading for a cliff

In his annual budget request to Congress, President Obama on Monday recommended strong funding increases for many scientific agencies that support the life sciences. However, the president’s budget request for the National Institutes of Health is unlikely to prevent a decline in biomedical research in 2011.

The president’s budget request for 2011 includes a $7.4 billion recommendation for the National Science Foundation.  This request would increase the NSF’s budget by nearly $498 million, or 8 percent, compared with 2010.

In a positive sign for biologists and biochemists, the NSF’s budget request for its Biological Directorate nearly kept pace with the NSF budget as a whole.  The president recommended increasing the Biological Directorate’s budget to nearly $768 million, an increase of 7.5 percent.  The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences is also slated for an 6.4 percent increase.

During the NSF’s budget request presentation on Feb. 1, Director Arden Bement said the NSF had “developed the right programs that the administration wanted to support.” The NSF’s programming contributed to the larger-than-projected budget recommendation for the administration, Bement said.

The NSF budget request presentation focused on a variety of programs in areas like climate change, energy, education and innovation, which directly align with the priorities of the administration.

But the request for the National Institutes of Health is not nearly as positive. The president’s request for the NIH is $32 billion, an increase of $1 billion or 3.2 percent from 2010.  This includes a 3.2 percent increase for the National Cancer Institute and a 3.6 percent increase for the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

Without considering the nearly $5 billion in stimulus funding that the NIH will spend in 2010, the president’s budget request represents a flat budget for the NIH.  Because of high rates of inflation in biomedical sectors, the 3.2 percent increase over 2010’s $31 billion budget just compensates for losses due to inflation.

Some in the biomedical community were quick to congratulate the president.  In a statement, Mark Lively, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said that it “clearly indicates that research is a high priority.”

“This is the largest proposed funding increase for the National Institutes of Health we have seen in a President’s budget in eight years,” Lively said.

But the president’s $32 billion request is in stark contrast to FASEB’s own recommendation.  In its annual federal funding report, FASEB recommends an NIH budget of $37 billion and says “additional resources are needed to pursue the historic level of scientific opportunities available today and uphold the nation’s role as a leader in medical research.”

The discrepancy between the president’s budget and FASEB’s recommendation is primarily due to accounting for stimulus money.  The American Reinvestment and Recovery act, or stimulus bill, gave the NIH an additional $10 billion above its existing budget to invest in biomedical research from 2009-2010.

Accounting for stimulus spending, the NIH spent approximately $36 billion in 2010.  The president’s budget represents a drastic $4 billion decrease from these levels.

The investment from the stimulus bill has been a vital boost to biomedical research.  The NIH has used the money to support 12,000 grants and may have supported as many as 50,000 jobs.

As stimulus funding expires, much of this important research will come to end as NIH research budgets significantly decline.  The NIH 2011 budget summary predicts that the president’s budget would support nearly 200 fewer research project grants than in 2010.

While the news is mixed for the NIH, other agencies faired better.  The president’s budget recommends a $226 million, or a 4.6 percent, increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and a $167 million, or a 63 percent, increase for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Budget overviews for the NIH and NSF can be found on the agency’s respective Web sites.  A full overview of the president’s budget can be found here.  Departmental fact sheets are available from the Office of Management and Budget.

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