Even in the midst of the health care debate, Congress is once again involved in the federal budget process. The funding levels, known as appropriations, that Congress passes will determine the budgets for the entire federal government for the coming fiscal year.
If you are one of the approximately 60,000 academically employed biomedical PhDs, this federal money is your lifeblood. Faculty, postdocs and graduate students all rely upon federal dollars to fund their research and some or all of their salaries.
Because a new budget is created every year, scientists must continually convince Congress and the president that science is worth funding. And while the NIH and other federal science agencies are unlikely to vanish, science funding, especially in the biomedical sciences, has not been a recent priority. Because it did not keep up with inflation, the NIH budget lost ~13% of its value from 2003-2008. A declining budget means less money for research.
The stimulus has provided a needed boost to the NIH budget. Projects have been extended, jobs have been saved and labs have stayed open. But the stimulus funding will disappear after 2010. Will some biomedical research expire with the stimulus?
Scientists need to tell policymakers that the NIH needs sustained, predictable funding increases to build upon the work of the stimulus. Research progress from this additional money will be lost without sustained investment and growth.
Calling, writing or emailing your member of Congress is a great way to let him or her know that increasing science funding should be a priority. Meeting with your member is an even better way to drive this message home. The web can tell you whom your House and Senate members are and how to get touch.
But before you talk to your member of Congress, what should you know about the budget process? Here are a few key points:
- It happens every year – Congress gives out money one year at a time. In other words, scientists must continually remind U.S. reps and senators about the value of scientific research.
- It’s LONG – From start to finish, it takes more that a year to pass legislation that funds the government. Starting nearly a year and a half before the money is to be given to the agencies –the federal fiscal year is from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 — the president and the Office of Management and Budget work with each federal agency to draft a budget proposal. In February, the president presents a budget to Congress. Congress then spends the summer trying to pass the budget before the start of the fiscal year in October.
- Authorizations are not appropriations – Every several years, federal agencies must be re-authorized. Authorization bills not only detail the organization and general role of each agency, but they set a limit on an agency’s funding over the coming years. Policymakers may talk about how an agency has been authorized at so many dollars over the next 10 years, but its actual budget is set during the yearly appropriations process. Congress is under no obligation to fund an agency at levels in an authorization bill.
You can find out more about the federal budget process here.