FYI: Science Policy News

FY20 Appropriations Bills: National Institutes of Health

SEP 30, 2019
Congress is looking to increase the National Institutes of Health’s budget by $2 billion to $3 billion for fiscal year 2020 from its current level of $39 billion.
Science Policy Analyst

The legislation that funds the National Institutes of Health has stalled in the Senate as lawmakers remain dug in over certain controversial provisions unrelated to NIH. However, Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee released the draft bill and its accompanying report this month, revealing they are proposing to increase the NIH budget from $39 billion to $42 billion. The House passed its counterpart spending legislation in June, proposing a $2 billion increase.

The proposals would continue the NIH’s streak of receiving multi-billion dollar annual increases over the last five years. The Trump administration had proposed to cut NIH’s budget by almost $5 billion for the year, setting it back to just above its fiscal year 2017 level.

The House and Senate bills would distribute their proposed funding increases relatively evenly across NIH institutes and centers. The following chart summarizes proposals for five institutes that provide substantial support to work in the physical sciences.

FY20 Budget Proposals: National Institutes of Health

The House and Senate committee reports provide additional funding and policy direction. Summary-level figures are collected in the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker .

Appropriators address pressing policy issues

Research strategy. The House report expresses a broad concern that Congress has “moved too far in the direction of targeted funding for specific initiatives, which has resulted in less funding being available for foundational research that may lead to unforeseeable scientific breakthroughs.” The Senate report similarly stresses that “many revolutionary discoveries often come from unexpected, untargeted research” and that the investments they propose across the institutes and centers “target clinical and translational research that moves basic discoveries from ‘bench-to-bedside’” in an effort to “maintain flexibility to pursue unplanned scientific opportunities and address unforeseen public health needs.”

Harassment policies. The House report directs NIH to adopt many of the recommendations of a report the National Academies released last year on sexual and gender harassment in the sciences, calling on the agency to “play a more active role in changing the culture that has long perpetuated the problem.” NIH Director Francis Collins has spoken several times on this issue and acknowledged that NIH has not been sufficiently focused on it.

NIH is currently considering policy changes in how it handles harassment complaints against grantees. The House report proposes the agency require grant-receiving institutions “not just to notify the agency when key personnel named on an NIH grant award are removed because of sexual harassment concerns, but also when they are placed on administrative leave for such concerns.” The Senate report proposes that NIH require institutions to report when “key personnel” are removed from an NIH grant because of harassment, though it does not include situations when they are placed on administrative leave. It also directs the agency to “integrate information about adjudicated cases regarding grantees and applicants into the grant award-making process, making clear there are significant ramifications for perpetrators.”

Research security. The Senate report states that appropriators remain “deeply concerned about foreign threats to the research infrastructure in the United States,” alleging the Chinese government has worked to “recruit NIH-funded researchers to steal intellectual property, cheat the peer-review system, establish shadow laboratories in China, and help the Chinese government obtain confidential information about NIH research grants.” It directs NIH to “carefully consider” the recommendations from the agency’s Working Group on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity, including undertaking a “broad education campaign about the requirement to disclose foreign sources of funding and develop enhanced cybersecurity protocols.” The report also specifies that the Office of National Security in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees NIH, allocate no less than $5 million to expand its work on research security.

NIH is currently investigating cases in which it believes researchers are receiving undisclosed support from foreign institutions, diverting intellectual property, or inappropriately sharing grant applications they are refereeing. The HHS inspector general also released a series of reports last week examining the agency’s policies and procedures for ensuring grantee institutions report all sources of research support, financial interests, and affiliations. They note NIH has made progress on each front, but also highlight inconsistencies in procedures across NIH institutes and a general failure of a majority of NIH grantee institutions to publish adequate conflict-of-interest procedures. NIH has generally concurred with the recommendations, while pointing out that the institutions found to have not published conflict-of-interest policies online account for less than 5% of NIH research grant funding.

Aerial view of the Clinical Center at the NIH’s Bethesda campus in Bethesda, MD.

Aerial view of the clinical center at the NIH’s campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

(Image credit – NIH)

Buildings and facilities. The Senate bill proposes increasing the budget for buildings and facilities repair by 50% to $300 million. Its report states that appropriators take maintenance “seriously” and acknowledges that increases appropriated to date have made “only a small dent in the increasing backlog.” The report specifies that NIH institutes and centers may also use “up to 1%” of their funding for facility maintenance and construction, noting that all 27 NIH directors have already agreed to the policy. The House proposes keeping buildings and facilities funding level at $200 million.

A congressionally mandated report released this month by the National Academies concluded that NIH’s campus in Bethesda, Maryland, requires a $1.3 billion infusion to address “deteriorating conditions” at many of its facilities and will need additional funds in the future to avoid another buildup of deferred maintenance.

Early career investigators. The Senate proposes meeting NIH’s request of $100 million for the Next Generation Research Initiative , emphasizing the importance of supporting young and mid-career scientists. The initiative, which Collins has stated is one of his priorities, provides funding specifically aimed at improving early-career researchers’ prospects in securing grant funding.

Indirect cost and salary caps. The House and Senate bills maintain a provision from last year restricting NIH from changing its reimbursement rates for overhead facilities and administration costs, which the Trump administration previously proposed slashing. The Senate bill also rejects a separate proposal to cap at 90% the fraction of researchers’ salaries that can be paid with grant funds.

Big data workforce. The Senate report highlights the workforce needs for NIH’s push into big data, noting that while the agency has prepared a strategic plan for big data, “it has struggled to recruit the talent to lead [these] efforts.” The report attributes NIH’s challenges in this area to “the salary restrictions of a civil service structure created when the differences in compensation among various skillsets was far narrower than it is today.” It directs the Government Accountability Office to “identify and review the options available to NIH for securing the talent it needs to lead and carry out these efforts,” in addition to reviewing how NIH currently funds computational talent through grants.

DOE collaborations. In their report, House appropriators encourage NIH, the Department of Energy, and its national laboratories to expand their relationship and leverage DOE research capabilities more strategically. This issue has been a priority of Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who oversees the appropriations subcommittee for DOE in the House, and mirrors language in the report on the House spending bill covering the DOE Office of Science.

Research transparency. The Senate report highlights what it calls “examples of questionable spending stemming from research grants awarded by NIH” over the last five years and recommends enhanced oversight of the grant review and approval process. It proposes that NIH publish written justifications online attesting that each grant awarded “promotes efforts to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and/or the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

Platform technologies. The Senate report proposes that NIH assemble a report on “platform technologies,” citing as an example how the Human Genome Project developed capabilities that drove down the costs of genetic sequencing. It specifies the report should examine issues such as limitations in NIH’s interactions with researchers in the physical sciences, its culture of prioritizing “hypothesis-driven as opposed to technology-driven proposals,” its “difficulty in supporting high-risk, high-return ideas,” and a grant structure oriented toward work on specific diseases. The report is also to consider the potential of alternate funding and research management models, such as that used by DARPA and nonprofit funders as well as the use of incentive prizes.

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