Univ. watches progress of NIH funding bill

A bill that would call for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health for the first time in years passed a major hurdle last week and is set to be considered by the U.S. House of Representatives today in a special session.

Yale could benefit from a larger NIH budget, but how quickly and to what extent remains unclear. Over the past three years, increases in the NIH budget have not kept up with inflation, limiting the amount of money available for biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006 calls for annual 5 percent funding increases for at least three years and was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last Wednesday by a 42-1 vote. But the measure must still pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the President. Even if the bill were enacted, administrators and outside observers said, there is little chance Yale or any other institution would see any new money for at least several years.

The University received more than $330 million from NIH last year in grants and contracts, the second largest source of revenue for the University after the endowment. Sara Rockwell, director of the office of scientific affairs at the School of Medicine, said an increase in research funding would help Yale.

“The fact that the NIH budget has been decreasing slightly in real dollars has been a problem for us and most other universities, so any increase in the budget would be important,” she said.

History may be able to provide a guide as to how much Yale could expect to receive. When the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, the University’s income from NIH went from $195 million to $303 million, a 55.4 percent increase.

The increases in the NIH budget face an uphill climb, Richard Jacob, Yale’s associate vice president for federal relations, said.

“The bottom line for virtually any program not related to national defense and homeland security is that there isn’t a lot of money in the budget now,” he said.

NIH funding available for research has fallen to the point that only about 10 percent of all grant applications are funded, Rockwell said, down from 20-30 percent a few years ago. She said Yale applications tend to be accepted more often. Paylines — funding cutoffs set at the beginning of the year — have dipped as low as the sixth percentile for one institute, meaning only the top 6 percent of the main type of grant’s applications as ranked by peer review committees will be funded unless extra money is left over at the end of the fiscal year.

The problem is especially grave for new investigators, the post-doctoral fellows and young assistant professors writing their first or second grants, Rockwell said. Paylines have dropped not only as money has become tighter but as more applications flood NIH — Rockwell said 80-90 percent of all grant applications are revisions of previous attempts. It takes about six months from submitting an application to hearing back about its status.

“On the first revision, the investigator loses a year,” Rockwell said. “For someone who’s a new assistant professor or a new post-doc, a lost year is huge.”

Though NIH is most well-known for sponsoring biomedical research, Rockwell said the University also needs NIH funding to support its broader educational mission. She noted that science graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and undergraduates working in science labs are often supported by NIH money.

Yale has advocated for the funding increases through its membership in the Association of American Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges, Jacob said. The groups originally wanted the bill to call for “such sums as are necessary,” but then lobbied for 5 percent increases when such language could not be included.

Despite bipartisan support in the House and the efforts of an influential committee chairman, the measure may not come to a vote today. The normal legislative session ended last week and representatives want to return to their home districts soon to prepare for midterm elections in November, AAU spokesman Barry Toiv said. But there will be another short session of Congress after the election.

Jacob said the bill will most likely pass the House. But the Senate has not focused on NIH reform this legislative session, and no similar bill is pending in the Senate.

“I think the bigger challenge is whether the Senate will pick it up,” Dave Moore, senior associate vice president for governmental relations at AAMC, said. “They’ve been looking at a variety of other issues.”

The Senate has focused more on AIDS research funding and biodefense, Jacob said, and the House and Senate could trade bills and end up passing both bodies’ priorities. Even so, Jacob said the president would probably not approve a 5 percent increase in funding.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Appropriations committees in each house determine budgets, and the NIH Reform Act of 2006 would only recommend funding increases, not mandate them.

Comments