CRomnibus: there's more there than dollars

Many of us have focused on the bottom line of H.R. 83, the fiscal 2015 continuing resolution-omnibus (CRomnibus) funding package, which the U.S. House passed last night. Science funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation received modest funding increases. However, there is more to this 1,600 plus page massive spending bill. In the details, we get a true sense of what Congress feels is important for the NIH and what policy priorities they have for the agency. (If you want to see the full text of what Congress said about the NIH, click here and go to page 39.) So let’s take a closer look…

AGE OF YOUNG INVESTIGATORS

The bipartisan group that drafted this bill took a page from U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who expressed concerns over the average age an NIH investigator gets their first R01 grant. Data showing the average investigator receives their first R01 at age 42 has been used to argue the effects of shrinking budgets and increasing competition for grants on the next generation of scientists, who may struggle to get their careers started. ASBMB’s past president, Jeremy Berg, has done some analyses on the average age metric, which suggest this problem is more complex than anticipated. Nevertheless, H.R. 83 directs the NIH to provide Congress with a report on what steps the agency will take to change this. Additionally, Congress directed the NIH to reexamine its 2008 workforce study with the goal of ensuring the workforce is an appropriate mix of early career and established investigators. Interesting thoughts.

BASIC RESEARCH

Congress urged the NIH to continue focusing on basic biomedical research. I think I know the staffer who entered this language, and I’d like to give that staffer a hug. I’m going to let the language here speak for itself. “The purpose of basic research is to discover the nature and mechanics of disease and identify potential therapeutic avenues likely to lead to the prevention and treatment of human disease. Without this early scientific investigation, future development of treatments and cures would be impossible. Basic biomedical research must remain a key component to both the intramural and extramural research portfolio at the NIH.” #gush!

Of course, later in the document, Congress specifically reminds the NIH that it supports research on 86 specific diseases and requests an update on research progress on these diseases. Internal consistency may not necessarily be the strong suit of a massive document like this.

IDeA / CTSA

Do you like these programs? Congress does. Congress required the NIH to report in 60 days how increased flexibility in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research can make more institutions and states qualify for Institutional Development Awards. Also, Congress says that this legislation “continues to protect the Clinical and Translational Science Award program.” I suppose one could argue, again, a lack of internal consistency with prioritizing basic research and continuing to protect the CTSA program, but that’s just my perspective.

AREAS WITH WHICH TO BE CONCERNED

Congress does make a few points that some, myself included, would signal a move toward micromanaging the appropriation of NIH funds. For example, the bill cites the Government Accountability Office report that says, “NIH’s research allocation process does not significantly take into account any method related to burden of disease on the American public, such as death or prevalence rate.” Also, the bill states, “The agreement expects NIH to promote the advancement of biomedical science in a manner that builds public trust and accountability and expects NIH to conduct rigorous oversight prior to awarding of funds to ensure that all grants are connected to the core mission and priorities of the NIH.”

Our colleagues who are funded by the NSF likely felt goose bumps reading that, as the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has been conducting rigorous oversight of NSF research to ensure funded grants are in the national interest. The primary difference here is that Congress is trying to legislate rigor at the NSF while the omnibus package puts the onus of rigorous oversight on the NIH. This is a topic that we will follow with great interest.

NOT A GREAT DEAL FOR THE NIH

We all knew this wasn’t going to be a wonderful deal for the NIH and other science funding agencies. Going in, we knew we weren’t going to see a massive increase in spending; in fact, we weren’t going to see increases that kept pace with inflation. However, this was probably the best deal we were going to get out of the 113th Congress. Overall, Congress remained a friend of the NIH, and we should be thankful for that. However, that friendship is being tested as fiscal battles continue, and the slow creep of politicizing scientific grants begins.

The omnibus isn’t a complete victory, and no one should be patting themselves on the back for accomplishing very little. There is clearly much work to be done in the 114th Congress.

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