U grants are contingent on Congressional action

by Dan Haugen

Researchers waiting for federal research grants received good news last week when Congress finally approved a 2003 omnibus appropriations bill.

President George W. Bush said he will sign the bill, which includes sizable increases for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Together those agencies fund more than half of University-sponsored research projects.

When the president signs the bill this week, he will end a monthlong period of uncertainty for scientists, during which federal agencies in financial limbo were reluctant to dole out research dollars.

The budget bill covers government spending for fiscal year 2003. Federal fiscal years start three months before the calendar year on Oct. 1.

Because approval comes more than four months after the University begins its fiscal year in July, the budget was a cause of anxiety in the research community, which relies heavily on government support.

When lawmakers could not agree on a budget by the start of the fiscal year, they voted to continue funding at the previous year’s levels until a new budget was set, rather than cause a government shutdown.

Interim Vice President for Research David Hamilton said the final 2003 budget “looks relatively good.” It completes a five-year doubling of the NIH budget, boosting it 15 percent compared to 2002, and increases the National Science Foundation’s funding by 10 percent.

“We know that there were some grants that were supposed to have been awarded for a Dec. 1 start date and had still not been awarded in mid-January,” Hamilton said.

Pediatrics professor Susan Berry said a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant was dispersed late this winter.

“It was a Dec. 1 start, and we just recently got the notice,” she said. The department avoided research delays by borrowing funds from an Office of Sponsored Projects Administration account.

“The University has a system that allows for preaward spending, but it’s awkward and it means paying a lot more attention to what’s going on,” Berry said.

Kevin McKoskey, senior grant manager in the Office of Sponsored Projects Administration, said grants have been infrequently awarded since fall, but recovery is imminent now that this year’s budget is resolved.

“The avalanche is probably going to hit shortly,” McKoskey said.

Lawmakers and lobbyists will now turn their attention to the 2004 budget. The proposal Bush unveiled earlier this month includes modest increases for NIH and National Science Foundation spending.

“There are certainly challenges in this budget for the University and the scientific community as well,” University federal lobbyist John Engelen said. He said he and other advocates for research institutions will push for a 10 percent increase in NIH spending for 2004, on par with the 30-year average.

Hamilton stressed it is early in the 2004 budget process. Though Bush has a Republican majority in Congress, research funding is not necessarily a partisan issue.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has been a vocal supporter of more large increases in the NIH budget.

“We’ve got some powerful people in Congress interested in the NIH,” Hamilton said. “If you look historically at presidents’ budgets and what Congress does with them, they’re two entirely different things.”

Dan Haugen covers research and

technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]