Congressional disagreements around the agency tend to be limited to how much funding it deserves, not whether it deserves much at all. And as supporters prepare themselves for new budget negotiations around the corner, they’re hoping this increase—with money for Alzheimer’s, precision medicine, and other research—is the first of many to come.
Historically, the NIH, the world’s biggest backer of biomedical research, has enjoyed robust bipartisan support in Congress. At the turn of the 21st century, Congress doubled the agency’s budget over five years, a period backers now refer to as the “doubling.” More recently, though, the NIH hasn’t seen the same kind of financial support, as focus shifted to national security concerns and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other concerns. The agency lost purchasing power and its ability to fund many grants over the last decade. But last year marked a change in the conversation around the NIH, something funding advocates attributed to a reshuffling of priorities. “People are saying ‘Enough, we have got to find answers and even if it means we’re gonna spend more money than some would like’ ... it’s worth doing,” Mary Woolley, the president of Research!America, said last month.
Now that the NIH has gotten a bump, the agency Director Francis Collins hopes Congress will begin to make funding more reliable. The new budget figure is a “wonderful development,” Collins said last week, sounding a lot more optimistic than he did just two months ago, when the omnibus negotiations were ongoing. But he’s quick to caution that his agency’s battle isn’t over. “It’ll be even more wonderful if this actually begins a trend to get us back on a stable, predictable, upward trajectory,” Collins said.
He said that researchers on the ground will begin to feel relief “almost immediately” from the 2016 budget increase, as more grants are funded. “This is the first time in quite a long time that we are able to look at our budget and feel excited and enthusiastic about what’s there,” Collins said. “This is a really good moment for a community that has been increasingly feeling quite stressed, and obviously we want them to get unleashed as quickly as possible.”
Collins and top health-care appropriators seem to be speaking the same language when it comes to the future of NIH funding. Roy Blunt, Cole’s Senate Appropriations counterpart, who advocated for a $2 billion bump, arrived in Congress just as doubling began in the late 1990s. He said that while he wouldn’t necessarily oppose some supporters’ push for an even grander goal—namely, another period of doubling—he doesn’t want to establish an “arbitrary” dollar figure for Congress to be working toward.
“What I don’t want to do is think that there’s a goal [and] once you get there you’re done, and you can turn in some other direction,” Blunt said. Collins, too, wouldn’t be comfortable with a dollar goal, though he appreciates the thought. He called a “feast or famine” approach to NIH funding “the worst way to support medical research.” Nor do lawmakers expect to be satisfied by this 2016 increase. Representative Chris Van Hollen, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, whose Maryland district includes the NIH’s headquarters, emphasizes the need for a sustainable pace. Lawmakers need to “build upon” the budget increase “so that we can get back to where we would’ve been” if funding hadn’t degraded after doubling. Patty Murray, Blunt’s Democratic counterpart on the Senate subcommittee, said in a statement that while she’s gratified by the bipartisan support around NIH, “there’s no question that we can and should do more.”