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How We’re Unintentionally Defunding NIH

NIHBudget-MAW-editIn June of 1998, the U.S. Congress, with bipartisan support, committed itself to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget over the next five years, arguing that “biomedical research has been shown to be effective in saving lives and reducing health care expenditures.” Shortly thereafter, a trio of scientists representing the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology laid out a vision of what increased funding could achieve: it would help the biomedical research community take advantage of an “untapped reservoir of talent and an underutilization of valuable human resources” by encouraging more innovative project proposals, and by helping more young scientists start their own labs, leading to a more productive scientific enterprise.

Congress finished doubling the NIH budget in 2003. Now, 10 years later, success rates for grant proposals have plummeted to historic lows, and the proportion of labs headed by young scientists has declined to nearly half of what it was in 1998. What happened?

A big part of the answer is that the U.S. government is letting the nation’s biomedical research infrastructure go to seed. Like my former landlord who paid for a major remodel of his property, and then let his investment decay out of utter neglect, the U.S. government built up our nation’s biomedical research capacity, and then let the NIH’s purchasing power steadily erode for a decade. In 2007, an analysis published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that decline of the NIH budget since 2003 would soon bring it to what it would have reached anyway if had Congress simply stuck with its pre-1998 historical trend of modest annual increases.

And that was before the economic crisis struck. The NIH received a sizable boost in 2009 as part of the financial stimulus legislation, but that was gone after two years. The worst hit came earlier this year, when the NIH had to trim five percent from its annual budget, six months into the fiscal year, in response to Congress’ sequester legislation. The Obama administration’s budget request for the 2014 fiscal year is $31.3 billion, more than 23 percent lower than the 2003 funding level in purchasing power, and almost 40 percent less than where a projection of the historical trend would put it (see the figure below). All trace of the doubled NIH budget has vanished, along with similar efforts to double the budgets of other science agencies (PDF).

Click here to read more from this November 27, 2013 Pacific Standard story by Michael White.

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