Y2K+1: Support for NIH Remains Strong Despite Legislative Turmoil

2001 was a year to look forward to: No more Y2K problems. No more hanging chads. No more special prosecutors. Just a nice, simple year in which everything could get back to normal. Unfortunately, “normal” and “2001” will never be mentioned in the same sentence again. None of us will ever forget 2001, and we all hope for a safer and healthier 2002.

FY 02 Budgets of Selected NIH Institutes
FY 01* FY 02* % increase
NIMH 1,106.5 1,248.6 12.8
NIDA 780.8 888.1 13.7
NIAAA 340.5 384.2 12.8
NIA 786.3 893.4 13.6
NICHD 978.7 1,113.6 13.7
NCI 3,737.2 4,190.4 12.1

* in millions

Under all but the most unusual circumstances, Congress revolves around the budget process. Period. There is no disputing it, no denying it, and no changing it. Yet when our country faces a national emergency, and Congress is forced to adjust accordingly, the annual budget gets pushed out of the limelight. This is a seismic shift. But it is important to recognize that out of the limelight does not mean out of commission. One thing that has not changed is Congress’ strong support for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is in the fourth year of a five-year schedule to double its budget.

The FY 01 budget for NIH was $20.3 billion. For FY 02, the Administration requested a budget of $23 billion, which would have been a 13.7 percent increase over FY 01. The House proposed less than the Administration’s request for NIH: $22.9 billion, which is an increase of $2.6 billion, or 12.3 percent. But the Senate proposed $23.7 billion for NIH, which is an increase of $3.4 billion, or 16.7 percent over FY 2001. The congressional conference committee essentially split the difference between the House and Senate numbers, to set the final FY 02 budget for NIH at $23.3 billion, which is a 14.7 percent increase.

There is good news specifically for behavioral science within this year’s NIH budget. The appropriations reports that explain Congressional intent behind the budget numbers address several issues raised in Congress by APS. These include broadening behavioral science throughout NIH, encouraging translational research at the National Institute of Mental Health, and getting a resistant National Institute of General Medical Sciences to fulfill its mandate to support basic behavioral science.

Both the House and Senate cast behavioral science as a priority across all of NIH and asked NIH to develop a plan for increasing behavioral research. The House requested NIH to report back with a plan for a coordinated system of increased training in basic and applied behavioral and social research, as well as a plan for increasing basic and applied behavioral research support in “non-traditional institutes, and other measures intended to ensure that NIH scientific priorities and policies appropriately reflect the central role of behavior in health. …” By requesting a report back from NIH, the House means business.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is the “basic research” institute at NIH, meaning it does not have a mission to address a specific disease, disorder or other targeted health issue. NIGMS continues to resist Congressional instructions to fulfill its statutory mandate to support basic behavioral science research. The Senate has several times expressed strong concern about NIGMS’s failure in this area, nothing “there is a range of basic behavioral research and training that NIGMS could be supporting. The [Senate Appropriations] Committee urges NIGMS, in consultation with the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences, to develop a plan for pursuing the most promising research topics in this area.” [S. Rpt. 107-84, p. 143] NIGMS has ignored similar congressional requests in recent years.
Translational research is already a priority at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) but the Senate sent a clear message of support and encouragement for NIMH’s continued efforts in this important area, which focuses on moving knowledge from basic behavioral research into clinical research and application. Recognizing that it is still a relatively new initiative, the Senate commended NIMH’s translational research activities. The Senate’s support on this issue is important and should enhance our ability to put the accomplishments of behavioral science to use, and to efforts aimed at bringing knowledge out of the laboratory and into practice, and vice versa.

The budget increases for institutes that are key supporters of behavioral science are indicated in the box. In addition to NIMH, those institutes include the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, and the National Cancer Institute. Virtually all components of NIH support some degree of behavioral science research but these institutes incorporate behavioral science as a core element in their research portfolios.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports a significant amount of basic behavioral and social science research, received an 8.4 percent increase over the FY 2001 budget, bring it to $4.8 billion in FY 02. That’s a pretty good increase by any measure, except when you compare it to the NIH budget increase, which of course everyone does.

Unfortunately, the news was not good for behavioral science at NSF. The Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate received only a 2.4 percent increase over the FY 01 budget, for a total of $168.9 million. SBE’s increase was the smallest of all program areas. This despite very encouraging language, reflecting issues raised by APS, from the Senate Appropriations Committee:

The Committee is aware of several exciting ongoing NSF initiatives in the behavioral sciences. The Committee continues to believe that NSF must take specific steps to support young behavioral science investigators to ensure an adequate supply of high quality researchers in this discipline in the future. The Committee, therefore, reiterates its past support and encouragement for this area and expects NSF support for this area of science will gain strength in fiscal year 2003. The Committee also believes that research on how people think, learn, remember, work in groups, apply learned information in new ways and other related research holds a great deal of potential for enhancing educational practices and increasing student achievement. The Committee applauds the Foundation for its priority support for the science of learning and expects that it will continue. [S. Rept. 107-43, p. 117]

The only good news here is that this final appropriation is almost $6 million more than the president’s original request. In a departure from tradition, Congress specified the funding allocations for NSF’s research program, whereas in the past, the allocations were decided by NSF itself. [H. Rpt. 107-272, p. 171]. NSF Director Rita Colwell has repeatedly expressed strong support for behavioral and social science research, so it is not clear why Congress – specifically, the House-Senate conference committee – has targeted SBE for such a minimal increase. This is not the first time we’ve seen attacks on the SBE directorate, but it is the first time that funding has been so dramatically curtailed.

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