US lawmakers seek $1.1-billion boost for the NIH

Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives also rejects a White House plan to cut 'indirect cost' payments to research institutions.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) would see its budget rise by US$1.1 billion in 2018, to $35.2 billion, under a spending proposal released on 12 July by lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

The legislation explicitly rejects a plan by the administration of President Donald Trump to cut the NIH’s budget by 18% in 2018. The president’s proposal would achieve that largely by reducing how much the agency pays to reimburse its grant recipients’ institutions for “indirect costs” — expenses such as administration and facilities maintenance. Instead, the House bill includes a provision that directs the NIH to compensate institutions for those expenses, although the materials released today do not include full details of the requirements. The House spending subcommittee that oversees the NIH is scheduled to vote on the legislation on 13 July.

The NIH spent $6.3 billion of its $30.4-billion budget for 2015 on indirect-cost payments. It has long negotiated with individual research institutions to set the rate at which they are reimbursed for overhead costs. These payments are not deducted from the amount awarded to specific researchers, but are paid separately as a percentage of the grant amount.

A Nature investigation in 2014 found that indirect-cost rates vary from 20% to 85% at universities, with an even wider range for hospitals and non-profit institutions. The White House plan had sought to set a uniform rate for these payments, arguing that the change would help to reduce “the risk for fraud and abuse”.

The House bill’s overall funding for the NIH and its treatment of indirect costs is encouraging, especially in contrast to the Trump proposal, says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland. “We are appreciative that the committee recognizes the important role universities play in the research enterprise,” he says.

The House legislation also includes increased funding for several high-profile projects in which the NIH is involved. The agency’s All of Us research programme, an ambitious study of health records and genomic information from one million people in the United States, would receive $400 million, an $80-million boost from the 2017 level. The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) would receive $336 million, an increase of $76 million.

The agency’s research programmes on Alzheimer’s disease would get an extra $400 million above the 2017 level, raising their total funding to $1.8 billion. Funding for the Cancer Moonshot, which seeks to accelerate progress towards cures, would hold steady at $300 million.