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Obama's Budget Proposal Fails To Calm The Science Community's Freak Out

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WASHINGTON -- In his budget released Tuesday, President Barack Obama proposed setting the funding for the National Institutes of Health at $30.2 billion this upcoming fiscal year.

The funding level represents a slight increase from the current amount of money that the NIH is set to receive, and the administration estimates that it will allow for 650 new research grants. But in a reflection of the angst felt by biomedical researchers across the country, even those who stand to benefit are warning that it's insufficient.

"The president’s budget does not reflect the potential the U.S. has to advance scientific discovery," said Mary Woolley, the president and CEO of Research!America, a nonprofit group pushing for greater investment in research funding. "While welcome, the minor increases for the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration diminish our ability to accelerate the pace of medical innovation, which saves countless lives, helps our nation meet its solemn commitment to wounded warriors, and is a major driver of new businesses and jobs. These funding levels jeopardize our global leadership in science."

The complaints from Woolley were emblematic of what other stakeholders were saying in private on Tuesday. While there is genuine appreciation for the administration's commitment to at least try to keep NIH funding levels steady, it is overwhelmed by a larger concern about the long-term funding trends. The Science Coalition, another non-profit pushing for investment, applauded the president for his “commitment to world-class science and research." But it did so in a larger, foreboding context.

"While federal funding for research and higher education programs in the United States has decreased in recent years, other nations have been investing aggressively in these areas because they have seen how our economy has benefitted," said the coalition's president, Jon Pyatt. "The result is that we now face an innovation deficit -- the gap between needed and actual federal investments in research and higher education. The United States is at risk of falling behind and ceding our role as the world innovation leader, and with this, reducing our prospects for economic growth."

The $30.2 billion proposed in the budget is unlikely to be enacted. Even if it were, it would be roughly $300 million lower than the 2009 funding level for the NIH. Adjusted for inflation, it would be $100 million lower than the funding level in 2002.

“Any funding increase in times of austerity is of significant benefit for the community,” said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “However, members of the community are concerned that the President’s request for the NIH is still below pre-sequester levels of funding for the agency. The scientific community still needs help to recover from these cuts.”

Placed in this historical context, the funding level set aside for biomedical research complicates the early narrative surrounding the president's FY15 budget: mainly, that it's a reversion to classic liberalism. The Washington Post, for instance, said the proposal "offers a smorgasbord of liberal policy ideas at a time when riling up the Democratic base."

The budget proposal does include more than a trillion dollars in revenue-raisers. That revenue -- including $56 billion in new money this coming year-- would help fund increased spending on things like universal pre-K and transportation projects. It would even help fund another $100 million for the National Science Foundation in 2015.

But a good chunk of the revenues in the proposal are also devoted to helping lower U.S. deficits by an estimated $1.4 trillion by 2024. For the biomedical community, the smarter deficit reduction strategy would be to fund research now so that the diseases it can help solve won't be too costly later.

"This is the price you pay when you install austerity funding measures that don't allow for growth," said one top government affairs official in the biomedical research funding community.

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