NIH budget increase on hold until debate is resolved in Congress

by Dan Haugen

As part of his $2.23 trillion federal budget proposal sent to Congress on Monday, President George W. Bush recommended an estimated 2 percent increase in the National Institutes of Health fiscal year 2004 operating budget.

The boost is unimpressive compared to recent years’ increases, but the proposal is historic in that its release comes before Congress and the president have agreed on the current fiscal year’s budget, which began Oct. 1.

“I can’t tell you that it’s ever happened,” said University lobbyist John Engelen, who has worked in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years.

Engelen said budget negotiations for this fiscal year have been complicated by many factors such as congressional elections this fall, an economic recession and the creation of the new Homeland Security department.

The 27 federal institutes and centers that make up the NIH are the largest sponsors of research at the University. In the University’s last fiscal year, they accounted for nearly half – more than $200 million – of the University’s research grant money.

The institutes’ financial health has been in limbo for several months now. Congress failed to pass a 2003 NIH budget before adjourning last year. Instead, lawmakers agreed to continue agency funding at the previous year’s levels until a new budget is approved.

The proposed budget working its way through Congress for the current fiscal year would increase the NIH’s budget to $27.3 billion. However, until that legislation reaches the president’s desk and is signed, the institutes’ present-year budget is $23.5 billion – the equivalent of its 2002 budget.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in November that if Congress drags its debate over the current year’s budget into March or later, it could force the NIH to cut back on the number of new research grants it awards in 2003.

Also in November, all 11 Big Ten presidents signed a letter to both parties’ congressional leadership asking that they resolve the budget in a timely manner.

An NIH spokesman said last week there have not been complications because of the budget yet, and none are expected if the budget is approved soon.

Dan Haugen covers research and

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