NIH FY11 Budget On The Chopping Block?

As the White House and House Republicans continue to negotiate toward a Thursday deadline for an FY11 budget to fund the final six months of the year, it appears that NIH may be on the chopping block. Rumors are all over the place and no definitive information seems to be available. An earlier Senate budget plan would have maintained NIH funding at its FY10 level. But with $38 billion to cut from the budget, any nondefense discretionary spending is at risk.

While I hesitate to link to an article from a partisan journal like The Nation without balancing it with other viewpoints, alas there is little definitive news arising from the murky depths of “budget negotiation hell” this week. So with that caveat, I encourage you to take a look at this article in The Nation.

The author states that NIH’s $31B annual budget accounts for one-third of the Department of Health and Human Services discretionary spending. She argues that cutting the budget would not make a meaningful dent in the budget deficit, as NIH only accounts for 2.9% of total discretionary spending.

Research funded through NIH extramural funds would not be supported by other sources. For-profit companies will develop promising research through R&D, but basic science funding must first get a project to the point where it shows enough promise to be developed.

The author goes on to say that if there were cuts, “The NCI will prioritize funding the same level of new grants (they currently fund 14 percent of new grant applications), but will have to cut funding from cancer centers. Others will have to choose between new and existing grants. When ongoing grants aren’t renewed, work may simply stop.” The fear is that we will lose the best and brightest scientists to industry, other fields, and/or other countries with a less draconian funding climate.

She states further, “Funding ‘basic science’ doesn’t sound appealing in lean-budget times, but cutting research in times of economic woe is counterproductive. Nearly 90 percent of the NIH research budget gets distributed across the country, employing scientists and lab technicians.”

Need I add that we as a nation spend billions of dollars each year treating preventable diseases? I recently blogged about the upcoming Community Transformation Grants, which target such diseases. It is funded through the Affordable Care Act, all aspects of which are at-risk for funding cuts– which seems economically short-sighted to me.

The author of the article concludes with the compelling statistic that each year 300,000 people die of cancer, which is the equivalent of losing 3,000 people in the Twin Towers every other day. She encourages those who support traditional defense spending to consider which enemy poses the greatest threat, and asserts that biomedical research is our best defense.

Many groups are organizing campaigns to oppose possible NIH budget cuts. For example, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has organized a Facebook page to “Help Oppose NIH Budget Cuts” And many biomedical research groups and foundations are encouraging members to contact their senators and representatives.

I know I posted this quote in support of basic science research recently, but given the circumstances this week I feel it bears repeating:

“None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century- the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb- owed its initial development to a Doctrinal Requirement or request of the military.”

John Chambers, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 79.)

Preparing for the upcoming Community Transformation Grants

As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (section 4201), the federal government instituted Community Transformation Grants, to be administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This innovative program is designed to “help local communities address racial and ethnic health disparities and reduce chronic diseases by promoting healthy living and tackling the social and economic causes of poor health.” State and local agencies, state or local nonprofits, national networks of community-based organizations, and Indian tribes may apply for grants. Applicants must devise a plan that lays out changes in policies, programs, environment and infrastructure. Specific activities suggested in the law include increasing access to nutritious foods, creating healthier school environments, encouraging physical activity, improving community safety, expanding worksite wellness programs and reducing health disparities. Grants are expected to fund innovative projects that involve broad coalitions of stakeholders in communities across the U.S.  Twenty percent of the grants were initially reserved for rural and frontier areas.

Although the program was supposed to run from 2010-14, it wasn’t until February 2011 that federal officials finally announced that $145 million would be distributed this year in the first of what is designed to be a multi-year initiative. This FY11 allocation is part of the $750M Prevention Fund in the Affordable Care Act. However, Republicans in Congress are proposing cuts to all aspects of the ACA. Rumors indicate that CTGs will focus only on the largest urban areas. Many organizations are attempting letter-writing campaigns to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, encouraging people to share success stories of improved health outcomes from previous Prevention Fund investments in small, mid-sized, and rural communities. Examples of such letters abound, including an open letter from the President and CEO of the YMCA together with the heads of several other prominent national organizations.

A funding opportunity has not yet been released.