By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
After years of budget cuts or increases that did not keep pace with medical research inflation, the National Institutes of Health has received a $2 billion increase in federal funding for Fiscal Year 2016.
The nearly 7 percent increase over last year’s funding and the largest boost in regular funding since 2003 was part of a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last month and signed into law by President Obama to fund the government through September 2016.
Of the increase, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute will receive a $118 million increase — or a 4 percent increase over 2015 funding — and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke will receive a $91 million increase, a 6 percent increase.
So what does this mean for the future of NIH research?
Dr. Steven Houser, senior associate dean of research at Temple University, calls the funding increase a “major victory for academic science.”
“It’s been nearly a decade since we’ve had support either at more than a constant or reduced level,” he said. “So the fact that we finally have a budget with an NIH increase is a good step.”
But many in academia have reservations about the sustainability of federal funding for the NIH.
“I think all of us are really excited about the impact that the investment can have on science, but there’s some skepticism – especially among some younger researchers — that there’s insufficient commitment to long-term funding to put their careers on the line,” he said.
Houser said repercussions from this funding unpredictability could cause a scientific brain drain. It also could prevent younger scientists from even entering the field of academic research.
A 2013 survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that 55 percent of survey participants knew of a colleague who lost his or her job, while 53 percent were forced to turn down promising researchers because of a lack of financial resources.
Similarly, a report released last year by United for Medical Research stated that nearly 75 percent of all researchers holding NIH or National Science Foundation grants had reduced their recruitment of graduate students and research fellows.
“When you have no clue whether the budget is going to go up, down or stay the same at the federal level, it’s almost impossible to plan how you should move a research program forward,” Houser said.
“One year of commitment after ten years of uncertainty. Is that sufficient to turn people back towards careers in science?” he said. “And I think the answer is not yet.”
Houser said the scientific community must do a better job advocating that sufficient investment in NIH leads to more jobs and economic growth. Since 1970, progress against various diseases has increased the national wealth by $3.2 trillion annually, according to the UMR report. Specifically, in 2014 NIH supported more than 400,000 U.S. jobs and created about more than $58 billion in new economic activity.
“The NIH provides support for many sectors of the economy and helps the United States be the leader in innovation, an arena where we have been a leader for many decades,” said Houser. But, he added, given that NIH funding is deemed “discretionary,” it is subject to fluctuation depending on the political landscape in the country at any given time.
“It’s a very unstable portion of the budget and it’s kind of scary when you think about it,” he said.
The 21st Century Cures Act, which was passed by the House in July with bipartisan support, and its Senate counterpart still in the works could possibly be the key to stabilizing NIH funding in the years to come. The House bill includes a five-year mandatory $8.75 billion “Innovation Fund” to support NIH and would be significant in helping the agency catch up from past flat-funding. The bill also includes provisions to devote expanded resources to the next generation of scientists.