OK, I give up. I clearly don’t understand American politics! A new House proposal puts research funding at center of broader FY2012 budget debate, but not the way I would have predicted.

In a surprise move the Republican House leaders released a draft proposal that would increase fiscal year 2012 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), just days after Democrats in the Senate voted to cut funds for the research agencies. OK, now I have seen everything.

Not to think that the world has changed that much, the House measure does, however, contain provisions that call for substantial cuts to other agencies, including the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. I suspect that the congressional Democrats will find impossible to accept these cuts again promising to elevate the level of conflict between the two parties with regard to the FY2012 budget. It is unclear to me what this will actually mean for the NIH as It does put NIH right in the middle of that broader debate.

The proposed House budjet would provide $31.7 billion for NIH, the level requested by the Obama Administration, which translates to be $1 billion, or 3.3 percent, more than the current FY2011 level. The NCI budget would also increase by $136 million, bringing its funding level to $5.196 billion.

The bill also contains the following provisions that would affect cancer research:
1- It would allocate money to the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), in essence, rejecting NIH Director Francis Collin’s proposal to replace NCRR with the new National Center for Translational Science (NCATS).

2- It would require that NIH provide no less than 9,150 new and competitive grants in FY2012, an increase of about 450 grants above projected levels for FY2011. It also states that NIH must maintain a balance of 90 percent extramural research to 10 percent intramural research.

3- It would provide up to $10 million to the NIH Office of the Director for the Director’s Discretionary Fund, of which up to $2 million “may be used to establish the Cures Acceleration Board within the Office of the Director’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives to develop a plan with prioritized recommendations related to the Cures Acceleration Network for consideration in future appropriations.”

On the other side, the Senate’s measure which was approved by the full Appropriations Committee, would cut $190 million, or 0.6 percent, from the NIH budget, reducing the FY2012 level to $30.5 billion. The NCI budget would fall to $5 billion, a cut of $58 million, or 1.2 percent, from FY2011. Under the Senate proposal, NIH would absorb nearly two-thirds of the total cut to the overall Labor-HHS-Education allocation for FY2012.

The Senate bill establishes and allocates funding for the NCATS, including $20 million for the Cures Acceleration Network, and eliminates the NCRR. The Senate bill does not include the same prescriptive language contained in the House bill regarding NIH extramural/intramural research grants.

A report on the measure released by the Senate Appropriations Committee says that the panel “regrets that fiscal constraints prevent a higher recommended funding level for NIH. With tight budgets likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the committee strongly urges NIH to explore creative ways to rethink the way it allocates its funding. The alternative — continuing to nick away, little by little, at the success rate or the size of awards — will inevitably have a negative impact on young investigators.” The establishment of NCATS, was cited in the report as an example of the type of refocusing that Senate appropriators have in mind.

Over the coming weeks and months, the House and Senate will need to negotiate the differences between the funding levels and other details of their respective bills – good luck, just what we need more discord in Congress.

Remaining always cynical.

Joel T. Nowak, M.A., M.S.W.