President Obama today released his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, and it’s not good news for the National Institutes of Health, the country’s largest funder of biomedical research. The request to the NIH will keep funding levels the same for next year, but only if Congress succeeds in finding an additional $1.8 billion for medical research. Assuming that happens, $825 million will go to the president’s three major biomedical initiatives, and the bulk — $680 million — will go to the cancer “moonshot.”
The remaining $1 billion will be split between the 27 institutes and centers that make up the NIH, but that doesn’t mean more money for their work. Rather, that money is needed to fill the gaps created by an equal level of discretionary spending cuts.
This is not good news for the (dwindling) cohort of biomedical researchers who rely on NIH funding. The amount of money for research project grants (grants submitted by academics to the NIH for funding) increased slightly in fiscal year 2017: $18.2 billion versus $17.8 billion in fiscal year 2016. But there will be fewer prizes will be awarded (9,946 vs 10,753), and they will be smaller on average (larger projects will take up more money). None of these figures also take inflation into account. NIH Director Francis Collins likes to point out that the NIH’s purchasing power was 25 percent greater in 2003 than it is today because of inflation.
After a promising State of the Union speech, this could be a tough one for the country’s research community. “Frankly, this budget does little to capitalize on the massive bipartisan support for the NIH in Congress,” said Benjamin Corb on behalf of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Proposing a level of funding that can’t support the biomedical research venture is surprising given the president’s consistent, strong support for the agency.”
When the president announced the idea of a “moonshot” for cancer, we pointed out that the US research enterprise really needs safe, sustainable and steady increases in funding. Looks like we’ll have to wait a while for that.