NIH Funding Outlook Uncertain Amid Big-Picture Budget Battles

The Endocrine Society has been encouraged by the significant increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in fiscal years (FY) 2016 and 2017.  However, further steady and sustainable increases in funding are needed to undo damage cause by years of flat funding prior to 2016.  At the time this article was written, several issues complicate the budget outlook for NIH as we look towards FY 18, beginning in September.

The overarching issue facing the House and Senate budget committees is the Budget Control Act (BCA), which places austere caps on overall funding levels for defense ($549 billion) and nondefense ($516 billion) discretionary funding in FY 2018.  Absent a budget deal similar to the ones negotiated in 2013 and 2015, sequestration imposed by the BCA would result in severe cuts, impacting all federal agencies, including the NIH, National Science Foundation (NSF), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other agencies that support endocrine research and public health.  Further complicating the budgetary picture is the need to increase the ceiling on the U.S. government debt, which is set to hit the debt limit sometime in mid-October.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the prospects of a budget deal, the House of Representatives is moving forward with the budget and appropriations process.  House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) is proposing a budget resolution that would significantly raise discretionary spending on defense to $621.5 billion, while reducing nondefense discretionary spending to $511 billion.  If enacted through the appropriations process, this imbalance would force appropriators to make further cuts to agencies that are funded through nondefense discretionary appropriations, including NIH and NSF.  However, the budget resolution is unlikely to move forward as written, given that it violates the current sequester cap of $549 billion for defense.  Moreover, the Senate, which would also need to vote on an overall budget resolution, has not yet indicated its position on topline spending levels for defense or nondefense discretionary spending.

Meanwhile, on July 10 the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education (LHHS), proposed an appropriations bill that provides $35.2 billion for the NIH, or an increase of $1.1 billion above the FY 2017 level.  However, because the overall allocation for the LHHS Subcommittee is reduced by $5 billion relative to FY 2017, other important agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would face severe cuts in the bill.  While the prospects of the bill moving forward are unlikely, given the other budget issues and limited time for consideration of all 12 appropriations bills in both the House and the Senate, the increase for NIH in the House LHHS Subcommittee indicates that it remains a high priority for the Congress.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the budget process, there is a considerable chance of at least a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government and allow Congress to work on a budget deal and/or the debt limit through September and into October.   However, the prospects of a government shutdown are not insignificant, as it is unclear where the Trump administration’s budgetary priorities lie and whether there are circumstances where they might veto an appropriations bill.  The Endocrine Society will join other biomedical research advocates to call on the Congress to raise the austere spending limits imposed by the BCA and work towards steady, sustainable increases in funding for the NIH.

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