Congress passed a continuing resolution March 21 to keep the federal government open through the end of September—effectively locking in the 5.1 percent across-the-board sequestration cuts.
The Senate version of the resolution was passed by the House of Representatives with a 318-109 vote. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it when he returns from the Middle East this weekend.
Having secured federal operations for the next six months, lawmakers now return to wrangling over taxes and spending for the next several years. Also on March 21, the House approved—and the Senate rejected—the 2014 budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan’s austerity plan calls for a $5 trillion cut in federal spending—including the repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act and an overhaul of Medicare.
Members of the Senate, on the other hand, are advancing a bipartisan amendment to create a deficit-neutral reserve fund for NIH, said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research.
The amendment was introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and will likely be voted on shortly.
“It will provide a framework of growth for the NIH budget over the next decade and allow the budget committee chair to adjust the budget resolution’s overall spending limits and spending allocation for the appropriations committee,” said Retzlaff.
“We are hoping that would mean the beginning of an era of growth for NIH.”
Sequestration Kicks In after Close Shave
Congress came perilously close to missing deadlines on the final continuing resolution: the measure was passed a day before a two-week recess, and six days before the current spending bill expires.
Parts of the government deemed nonessential—including Labor HHS agencies—would have been forced to shut down had a continuing resolution failed to pass. Nevertheless, layoffs are expected in a number of federal agencies, and as many as 800,000 civilian workers await furlough notices from the Defense Department due to sequestration. It’s not publically known how NIH and FDA expect to manage the automatic budget cuts.
The six-month continuing resolution was designed to mitigate the impact of sequestration by increasing spending in priority programs and agencies through amendments—just before the cuts kick in at the end of March.
NIH will receive $67 million above fiscal 2012 levels through an amendment by Sens. Mikulski and Richard Shelby (R-Al.).
Another amendment, by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), to increase NIH funding by $211 million fell six votes short of the 60 required for passage.
“The current CR includes a 0.612 percent increase over FY2012 that was removed from the full-year CR due to the change in the discretionary caps enacted in January,” NIH officials said to The Cancer Letter.
The continuing resolution is estimated to reduce the NIH sequestration cuts for fiscal 2013 to $1.486 billion, down from $1.553 billion.
“While any increase in this environment shows bipartisan prioritization of biomedical research, it still needs to be considered in the light of the reduction the agency received due to the sequester,” said Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research. “It is our hope that as we move into FY14 and beyond we can work with Congress and the administration to restore NIH to a path of sustainable funding increases.”
Neither NIH nor NCI has the final budget numbers, but NCI would likely receive a $10 million increase, according to a statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“We are pleased that Congress has taken a small step to recognize the importance of biomedical research in this difficult economic climate,” said ASCO President Sandra Swain. “But sequestration is still a serious threat on top of previous years of stagnant funding in the face of biomedical research inflation.”
“Specifics have not been announced, but [NCI Director Harold] Varmus has said that he hopes to fund just as many grants in FY 2013 than it did in FY 2012,” said Retzlaff. “They can now start putting their plans into place and communicating them to us because they have a final budget for FY 2013.”
The sequestration isn’t being prorated, according to NIH officials. The 5.1 percent cut is based on the full fiscal year and has to be implemented over the remaining half of the year.
“We were happy to see that Congress came to a bipartisan agreement in advance of the continuing resolution deadline, with an increase to NIH,” said Barbara Duffy Stewart, executive director of the Association of American Cancer Institutes.
“However, this does not change the unprecedented budget cuts that our nation’s cancer centers face due to sequestration,” said Stewart. “It is our hope that Congress will work together to avoid future cuts to NIH and ultimately, NCI.”
“AACI cancer centers and young scientists cannot afford to see promising research slowed or halted.”
Sequestration and the Cost of Biomedical Inflation
“We are gratified that on a bipartisan basis, Congress provided extra dollars for NIH, NSF and FDA in the continuing resolution, but those modest gains were obliterated by sequestration,” said Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. “Unless and until policymakers repeal these annual across-the-board cuts, biomedical and health research will be in decline.
“We cannot let these arbitrary, counterproductive cuts stand.”
The loss to NIH’s purchasing power may total 23 percent over a decade, according to a recent fact sheet published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
After a stretch of flat funding and inflation, sequestration would reduce the NIH funding capacity to $20.7 billion—nearly a one-quarter loss.
California and Massachusetts may lose as much as $180 million and $127 million in NIH funding due to sequestration, respectively, according to FASEB estimates.
“I think the suddenness of [sequestration] and the depth of it would be a disaster for research, which is not an activity that you can turn on and off from year to year,” said Elias Zerhouni, former NIH director and president of global research and development at Sanofi. “The most impacted are the young, new investigator scientists, who are coming into science, and will now abandon the field of science.”
“We are going to maim our innovation capabilities if you do these abrupt deep cuts at NIH,” Zerhouni said. “It will impact science for generations to come.”
Sequestration cuts amount to more than the fiscal 2012 funding of $1.491 billion for three major research programs at the NCI that study the mechanisms, diagnosis and prevention of cancer. That amount is also more than the $1.48 billion budget for the National Institute of Mental Health, according to a March 13 report by Research!America.
“It’s extremely frustrating, because we are going in completely the wrong direction, as this budget for NIH in FY 2013 accelerates the decline in medical research funding that we have been facing for the past decade, especially when taking into account how NIH’s budget has not been keeping up with the annual rate of inflation,” Retzlaff said. “This crisis situation is why we as a community are joining together on April 8 to Rally for Medical Research.
“Thousands will be participating in person at the rally while millions will be participating nationwide to ask our policy makers to make NIH and medical research a national priority,” Retzlaff said.