After stimulus windfall, medical researchers eager for more funds

Medical research institutions scored a major coup when Congress included an additional $10.4 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the stimulus bill, but their advocates are not stopping there.

Biomedical research groups sense an opportunity to build on that victory and are pressing lawmakers and the Obama administration for more money. Congress this week will consider a $410 billion omnibus package of spending bills for the current fiscal year and then move on to a budget for fiscal 2010 — both of them prime targets for more funding.

“We’re certainly not going to back off,” said American Heart Association President Timothy Gardner, who welcomes the additional money from the stimulus but noted that it is not a “long-term fix” for the NIH. “We’re not embarrassed by being advocates for strong, sustained research funding. We’re not going to be shy.”

The stimulus funding amounts to a more than one-third increase in the NIH’s budget, which had already been doubled between 1998 and 2003.

The target is annual increases of at least 7 percent — and for those increases to start where the stimulus left off, said Richard Marchase, the vice president of research and economic development for the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

“Sustainable and predictable funding increases for biomedical research is really the key to progress in fighting diseases,” said David Pugach, the associate director of federal relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

“Research is not effective if it goes up and down in terms of financial support,” said Gardner, who also is the medical director for the heart center at the Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del.

Researchers do not want that money to be only a temporary bump. Their first challenge will be to ensure that the stimulus money added to the NIH’s $30 billion budget stays there and becomes the foundation for future increases. President Obama’s budget outline, due Thursday, could offer a clue as to whether the administration’s plans track with the researchers’ aims.

The NIH itself is not counting on that. In a memo sent to research advocacy groups last week, acting NIH Director Raynard Kington spelled out the agency’s plan to spend the stimulus funding over two years. “Note that none of these resources are added to the NIH’s future base funding level,” Kington wrote. Kington, who has been acting director since October, also briefed about 200 advocates in person last week on the stimulus.

The agency will focus on funding short-term research projects with the money. For scientists who get grant money from the stimulus pot, “There’s absolutely no guarantee or promise that their projects will continue to be funded after two years,” Pugach said.

In his memo, Kington touts the benefits of the NIH’s stimulus boon to the economy and the field of biomedical research. “The impact of this stimulus to scientists cannot be overstated. The impact extends far beyond the current economic challenges and immediate scientists who will receive these funds,” wrote Kington, who has been an NIH official since the Clinton administration.

With Congress and the Obama and Bush administrations already having shelled out more than a trillion dollars — and with more possibly on the horizon — to revive the economy, scientific organizations might find a skeptical audience.

“We’re going to have to do an exceptionally good job to convince Congress” to enact a plan to ratchet the NIH budget up to $60 billion by 2018, Marchase said.

As evidenced by Congress’s generosity in the stimulus package, however, biomedical research has some hearty champions. President Obama, for one, vowed to double scientific research funding over 10 years. Lawmakers at the head of powerful committees and subcommittees also have proven their support for NIH funding time and again.

“The new administration and President Obama have committed themselves to great support for our scientific research programs,” Gardner said.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is credited with insisting on the NIH funding as a condition of his support for the $787 billion economic recovery package. A cancer survivor and the most senior Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that sets the agency’s budget, Specter is a longtime champion of NIH funding. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), also is a staunch NIH booster.

The NIH already had grown considerably and rapidly over the past decade. From 1998 to 2003, Congress and the Clinton and Bush administrations doubled the NIH’s budget, raising it from $13 billion to $27 billion.

But during the remaining years of his administration, President Bush scaled back funding increases. Though Congress set aside more money each year for the NIH than Bush requested, the rate of growth decreased significantly, reaching $29.4 billion for fiscal 2008. According to research groups, that essentially flat funding over several years amounted to a cut because research costs grow faster than inflation.

The stimulus, Pugach said, “almost evens the NIH out to where it was a few years ago.”

Advocates for NIH funding do not want to see the budget increases fall like that in the future. If the stimulus money is not added to the baseline, NIH funding in fiscal 2011 could actually be lower than it was before the enactment of the stimulus, even if Congress grants the agency an ordinary annual funding hike.

“We would be facing a cliff like we’ve never seen before,” Marchase said.

According to people who attended Kington’s briefing, the NIH will more or less split the funding evenly during fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Therefore, if those funds were added to the NIH’s budgetary baseline, the fiscal 2011 budget baseline would be around $36 billion.

“The critical year here is going to be ’11 because the stimulus money isn’t going to be here to supplement [the NIH budget],” Marchase said.

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