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A Budget Breakthrough for NIH?

December 3, 2015

As Congress winds down for the year, I want to encourage everyone to urge members of Congress—before December 11—to boost the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to at least $32 billion in its FY 2016 appropriation. 

Here’s why.

I have advocated on the AAMC’s behalf for over a decade, during which I have been involved with myriad policy challenges. Nothing has been as satisfying as ensuring that as many Americans as possible benefit from the unique contributions of the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals.

At the same time, it has been alarming to see the dramatic decline in the NIH budget’s purchasing power. Today, its inflation-adjusted funding buys nearly 25 percent less than 12 years ago.  

NIH now can fund only one in six approved grant applications, compared with one in three 15 years ago. As a result, a generation of young scientists is finding it increasingly difficult to start their careers because they can’t get their first NIH grants. Extremely tight research budgets also necessitate increasingly conservative investments because we cannot afford higher-risk research, despite the potential for the biggest discoveries. Such missed research opportunities have put hope on hold for millions of patients with serious illnesses.

That’s why the scientific community, including the AAMC and its member medical schools and teaching hospitals, is excited by the renewed congressional support for NIH. The recently enacted federal budget deal, which adds funding to the non-defense budget, revises the “sequester caps” for two years and provides the opportunity to enact a substantial NIH increase. There is bipartisan support in both the House and Senate not only for at least a $1 billion to $2 billion increase in the annual NIH appropriation but also for legislation Congress is working on that could ensure additional funds for NIH for several years.

As encouraging as this political moment may be, I think about three lessons learned from NIH’s history since 2003.

First, what lawmakers want to see from major new public investment in biomedical research is delivery on the promise of major scientific breakthroughs. Today’s scientific leaders speak of once-distant horizons of discovery that could benefit millions—people with cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, HIV, and more. Achieving breakthroughs sustains heightened levels of investment. Some would say that after fulfilling the five-year campaign to double the NIH budget by 2003, people had high expectations for medical breakthroughs in a very short period of time. These kinds of expectations can be unrealistic because significant breakthroughs take time. Our community needs to champion NIH with not only energy, but also realism.

Second, “sustainability” has become an essential word in the AAMC’s NIH advocacy with our call for “sustainable” increases in funding. It is as important to achieve ongoing, strong support for NIH over multiple years—as the 21st Century Cures Act PDF External Link would do—as it is to win a big short-term injection of funds. Sustainability is vital to NIH’s long-term success.

Third, and most important of all, we cannot for a single second let up the pressure for increased NIH funding. No matter how promising NIH’s position may seem to be today, there is no guarantee Congress will enact either a Labor-HHS appropriations bill or an omnibus bill for FY 2016 with the sought-after NIH budget increase before current funding expires on December 11. 

Right now, each of us should thank the 145 House members who have co-signed a bipartisan “Dear Colleague” letter  that strongly recommends at least $32 billion for NIH in FY 2016, as well as the 104 Representatives whose Republican letter PDF External Link calls for $33 billion. We need to urge these legislators to continue to champion NIH with all their might and vote for increased NIH funding in the omnibus spending bill later this month. America’s health depends on it.

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About the Author

Atul Grover, MD, PhD AAMC Executive Vice President

Atul Grover, MD, PhD
AAMC Executive Vice President

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For More Information

Peters Willson
Sr. Specialist, Policy and Constituency Issues
Telephone: 202-862-6029