amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on NIH Funding

April 2, 2008—The Senate Health, Education, and Labor Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on March 11 to examine the impact that the last several years of flat funding for the National Institutes of Health has had on young researchers. The committee hearing was inspired by the report, A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk, written by a group of concerned scientists and researchers.

The report and hearing highlighted the need for the U.S. to reinvigorate its investment in scientific research, which has substantially decreased over the past five years, creating a trickle-down effect on universities, laboratories, and in the ranks of junior scientists.

Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the NIH’s budget, which allowed for several advances in cutting-edge research, including completion of the Human Genome Project and development of drugs that reduced U.S. mother-to-child-transmission of HIV from 25 percent to 1 percent. But in 2003, budget increases ceased and the purchasing power of the NIH plunged. This marks the fifth consecutive year that Congress has approved a flat funded budget for NIH, and FY 2009 promises much the same.

In February, the president released his FY 2009 budget request for $28.9 billion—which appears on first view to be yet another flat funding. However, $300 million of this sum is earmarked for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, resulting in an actual decrease in basic research dollars. And while $28.9 billion may seem like a substantial amount, as the Broken Pipeline report points out, it represents only 5.5 percent of U.S. annual spending on healthcare.

Earlier in March, both the House and Senate approved similar FY 2009 budget resolutions that would increase spending for healthcare and domestic programs beyond President Bush’s budget request by more than $21 billion. The passage of these budget resolutions is the first step in a long process that involves creating a concurrent resolution to be presented to appropriations committees in both the House and Senate.

During the Senate budget approval process, Senators Tom Harkin and Arlen Specter, along with several co-sponsors, offered an amendment that would provide a 6.7 percent increase for the NIH in FY 2009. The amendment passed by a vote of 95-4. Yet this proposed increase would not make up for the impact of flat funding throughout the past five years. The Office of AIDS Research (OAR), which coordinates the scientific, budgetary, legislative, and policy elements of all NIH AIDS research, estimates that an increase of 15 percent is needed to begin erasing the impact of the past five years. According to the OAR, inflation and the flattening of the AIDS budget in the past five years have reversed any gains due to the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003.