A budget bill passed by the US House of Representatives boosts funding for several science-related agencies. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Biomedical research advocates are revelling in holiday cheer as a budget bill passed by the House of Representatives on 18 December gives the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) its biggest funding increase since 2003. Several other science-related agencies also benefit substantially from the budget, which is expected to be passed by the Senate and be signed into law by President Barack Obama within a few days.

“Best Christmas present ever,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. The spending bill allocates just over US$32.1 billion to the agency: a 6.6% rise over its 2015 budget. The agency's funding has been flat since 2003, apart from a $10-billion windfall in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 that was part of stimulus package meant to lift the economy out of recession. After accounting for rises in research costs, funding actually fell by 20% during that 12-year period. The new budget, Zeitzer says, almost returns the NIH to its real 2003 level.

The NIH’s budget windfall is not just deep, but wide, too: the agency gets all the money it asked for to fund major programmes, including $85 million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative and $200 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative, a longitudinal study to track the health of one million Americans. The bill also boosts spending on Alzheimer's research by $350 million, to bring total NIH spending on the disease to about $1 billion per year. The increase is the largest ever, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Several other research agencies have found gifts in the budget, which the House approved 11 weeks after the 1 October beginning of the 2016 fiscal year. NASA receives a bump of almost $1.3 billion over its 2015 funding, to $19.3 billion. That sum includes $175 million for a mission that will orbit and land on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and search for signs of life. And the NASA budget includes $2 billion for development of the Space Launch System, a next-generation rocket that is meant to carry astronauts and probes on deep-space missions.

Budget highlights

Table 7.32775 Budget highlights

Policy matters

Congress extended somewhat less generosity to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): the spending bill grants the regulatory agency $132 million more than it received in 2015, for a 5% increase. The bill also forbids the agency from spending money to review any applications for clinical trials that involve human embryos with heritable genetic modifications, effectively banning such research.

And Congress used the spending bill as an opportunity to set policy on genetically modified food. The bill blocks the importation of genetically modified salmon — approved by the FDA in November after a 20-year wait — until the agency has developed guidelines for labelling food products that come from genetically modified animals. Because the agency has already recommended not labelling the fast-growing salmon, however, that measure may not prove a practical obstacle to getting the foods to market. And the budget did not take a stand on labelling genetically modified foods, despite a heavy push from industry to insert language that would block state laws that do require the labelling. A Vermont labelling law takes effect in July.

The bill also did little to specify how the National Science Foundation (NSF) spends its money — a contentious issue that arose in June when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives proposed requiring the foundation to spend 70% of its research funds on biology, computer science, engineering, mathematics and physical sciences. The provision would have effectively cut the funds available to social science and geoscience by about 15%. In the end, the spending bill allocates $7.5 billion to the NSF, a small 1.6% increase over 2015 levels, and specifies that social-sciences spending remain flat.

Although the healthy funding increases come as good news to many researchers, says Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs at the American Physical Society in Washington DC, there is bad news on the horizon. He points out that a deal struck in October by legislators and Obama provides almost no room for additional boosts in 2017. “One should not say all of this is ushering in a new era,” Lubell says. “It is not.”