publication date: Jul. 25, 2014

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By Conor Hale

Sen. Tom Harkin introduced a bill that would set NIH on a path to recoup the purchasing power it has lost since 2003, and make funding biomedical research a national priority.

The bill is not an appropriations bill, and does not authorize spending any money. It would, however, raise the limits set in place for NIH by the 2011 Budget Control Act and sequestration, allowing Congress to appropriate $46.2 billion by 2021—a level near where NIH funding would be, had it kept pace with inflation.

“This is the minimum,” Harkin (D-Iowa) said as he introduced the bill in the Senate July 24, commonly referred to as the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act.

“Where do we stand today?” he asked. “We’re short about $8 billion from where we would be if we had just kept up with inflation.”

“NIH has lost about 20 percent of its purchasing power. Success rates for applicants fell from the traditional 30- to 35-percent range to just 16 percent last year. Promising research was not funded.”

Harkin chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of funding NIH, which received $29.9 billion for the current fiscal year.

In seeking co-sponsors, he described how investment in NIH pays off abundantly in economic activity.

“[Economists] have estimated that for each dollar of investment in [the NIH] generates anywhere from $1.80 to $3.20 in economic output,” he said.

“I’m always hearing that we should have a robust debate on the budget and the spending priorities of the country. This bill starts that debate.”

Internationally, of the ten leading countries in the field of scientific research, the U.S. is the only one that has reduced its funding, in terms of percentage of GDP since 2011.

A multitude of advocacy organizations and professional societies have come out in support of the bill.

“The Accelerating Biomedical Research Act comes at a critical time, and we share your belief that the current budget caps must be reevaluated,” said Joseph Haywood, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. FASEB is also grateful that the bill will create a more predictable, multi-year program of sustainable growth for NIH.”

“[NIH’s] budget has remained virtually stagnant over the last decade, jeopardizing promising research to combat disease and deflating the aspirations of early career scientists,” said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America.

Harkin—who has announced that he will retire from the Senate at the end of his current term, in 2015—presided over the doubling of NIH’s budget, which ended in 2003. “We have slowed down and stopped, resting on our laurels, so to speak,” he said.

“It’s time for us, on a bipartisan basis, for Congress to reverse this erosion of support for biomedical research he said. “It would allow for NIH to make up for lost ground.

“Quite frankly, I could argue that we have to do even more.” 

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