Published online 17 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/457942a

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Medical research scores big in US stimulus bill

Congress votes to give generous boosts to other agencies too.

Arlen SpecterSenator Arlen Specter's efforts got the National Institutes of Health 10 billion dollars in extra money.S. Walsh/AP

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) could call him Saint Specter. Cancer survivor Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was one of three moderate Republican senators whose votes were crucial in pushing a $787-billion economic stimulus package through the US Congress. In the Senate, Specter had introduced an amendment to triple the NIH's share of the spending, calling it "scandalous" that the country doesn't spend more on medical research. His proposed $10 billion of extra spending for the NIH over two years made it through to the final version of the bill agreed by both houses of Congress on 13 February.

That spending on biosciences did well compared with other science spending is not a great surprise. "Generally, the NIH gets all the big funding because people think they're going to save lives that way," says Vernon Ehlers, a physicist and member of the House of Representatives (Republican, Michigan). "Members of Congress feel a vote for the NIH is a vote for good health." What has been a surprise to many is the sheer amount of beneficence. Although there was plenty of money for physical sciences, too, in the bill, the sums were nothing like so spectacular.

The stimulus package, which is one-third tax cuts and two-thirds spending, contains some $21.5 billion for scientific research and development across all agencies, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In relative terms, the National Science Foundation (NSF) did even better than the NIH, as its $3-billion award is almost half its annual budget (see 'The stimulus bill: who got what'). The Department of Energy, while receiving a relatively modest $1.6 billion for its research-oriented Office of Science, will get a huge sum agency-wide — about $40 billion for a variety of energy and energy-efficiency projects.

"The stimulus package is a singular event in the history of science funding," says John Marburger, former presidential science adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama was expected to sign the bill into law shortly after Nature went to press. After that, agencies have 60 days to present spending plans to the White House, and then cheques are meant to be cashed quickly: most spending must be completed by 30 September 2010.

The bill is meant to get government money into the faltering economy speedily. The speed with which it was put together meant that individual members of Congress, such as Specter, were able to wield huge influence. A version of the bill that circulated as it was being finalized was covered in strike-throughs and hand-scrawled marginalia that exemplified how quickly hundreds of millions of dollars in science funding could appear, or disappear, at the stroke of a pen. Marburger, for one, questions whether the Obama administration, which is still naming the heads of key science agencies, was able to exert as much control over the legislation as it wanted.

What began as a bill that was supposed to be limited to scientific infrastructure ended up supporting mostly research and grants, notes Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC. Many hope that such broad cash infusions mark the start of sustained future investments in basic science funding in a way that one-off spending on infrastructure would not. "What was put in the stimulus is what was supposed to be in appropriations from last year," says Ehlers, referring to the attempts to boost physical sciences through the America COMPETES Act. "I hope it's part of a sustained effort," he adds.

Congress has not yet passed final spending bills for fiscal year 2009, although it is expected to work on an omnibus spending bill in the week beginning 23 February. Around then, the Obama administration is expected to release its first sketch of what it wants in its 2010 budget.

Here's a look at some of the big winners in the stimulus bill.

National Institutes of Health: $7.4 billion divided among the agency's scientific institutes and centres will fund grants from a backlog of 14,000 investigator-initiated 'R01' grants already reviewed and categorized as "highly meritorious". It will also fund new R01 applications for projects that could reasonably make progress in two years. The agency will add supplemental funding to existing grants and fund new "challenge grants" aimed at thorny problems.

"We are confident that we can spend the funds that Congress has allocated both responsibly and quickly," says Raynard Kington, acting NIH director.

Advocates of biomedical research, who have lobbied fruitlessly for substantial NIH increases in recent years, were ecstatic. But they also cautioned against repeating history, in which a budget doubling between 1998 and 2003 was followed by five years of flat funding, leading to a glut of investigators and plummeting application success rates. "We're hopeful that this represents a first step towards sustained growth," says David Moore, senior director of government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC.

Kington notes: "We are being very careful to focus on funding that only covers the two years of the stimulus package. There will be relatively little, if any, money that entails a four-year commitment."

National Science Foundation: The $3-billion stimulus award is a vast amount for an agency with an annual budget of only twice that. Will the NSF have trouble distributing the money quickly and wisely? "It's not a problem at all," says Rita Colwell, former NSF director, who believes that the agency could use up all of the stimulus money with existing grant applications. Michael Turner, former assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences at the NSF, says that grant-application success rates have been very low, around 20%. By increasing that rate to just 30–40%, the agency could use up the $2.5 billion that has been designated for research. "They have many more proposals that are highly worthy," he says. Another $400 million has been designated for the construction or rehabilitation of facilities.

Department of Energy: Lubell says that the Office of Science should have no trouble spending its $1.6-billion award even without funding grants. With the help of the department's national laboratories, he drew up a list of infrastructure needs alone that came to that figure. In a statement, acting Office of Science director Pat Dehmer says her office is "putting the mechanisms in place to get the funding out quickly with strong transparency and accountability controls".

The bigger question is how well the rest of the agency will fare. Energy secretary Steven Chu has been given sums totalling $40 billion, that dwarf the accustomed budgets in the parts of the agency targeted. For instance, spending on fossil-fuel energy research and development was just under $750 million last year; the stimulus bill will dump $3.4 billion in that arena.

Much of the energy department's new money can be distributed in big chunks, because many energy demonstration projects require loan guarantees worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

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