When agreement isn’t enough

The U.S. Congress is now entering appropriations season – that exciting time of the year when the House and the Senate dole out funding to federal departments, agencies and pet projects for fiscal 2015. This time of year has advocates like me scheduling meeting after meeting to fight for funding for our constituencies. On one hand, this kind of dialogue with members of Congress represents democracy at its best. On the other hand, this dialogue can be one of the most frustrating aspects of science advocacy.
The case for increased federal investments in research and development is, on its face, an easy argument to make. You’d be hard-pressed to find a member of Congress who doesn’t see value in investing in research on diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Likewise, the economic argument in support of investments in research is clear, concise and widely accepted. If the argument is that clear, and support is bipartisan, then why are increases so hard to come by?
This answer has many parts. The first is legal. In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which established hard caps on how much money Uncle Sam can appropriate for discretionary programs between 2011 and 2021. This statute was an effort to curb growing debt and deficits and was championed successfully by conservative House members. In addition to discretionary appropriations caps, the act established automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, commonly known as sequestration, which have so negatively impacted research.
Advocacy efforts like those by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee were a part of the reason a bipartisan accord was reached last December that relieved the cuts of sequestration for FY14 and FY15. The Bipartisan Budget Agreement last December delayed some spending cuts and raised some fees to an extent that relieved the majority of budget cuts slated for these fiscal years. However, the budget caps remain. As a result, appropriators are still limited in the amount of money they can disperse, including funds for research funding agencies.
The second issue is politics. The National Institutes of Health is funded in the appropriations bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies. Sadly, while supporting biomedical research at the NIH is easy regardless of political party, this bill has been arguably one of the most politically charged bills in the appropriations process because it includes funding for controversial groups and programs, such as the nonprofit Planned Parenthood and President Obama's Affordable Care Act. One side of the debate will argue for increased funding for the NIH by taking money away from other programs under this particular appropriations umbrella, but the other side will oppose bitterly the reduction of funding for the other programs. As such, NIH funding ends up in a political quagmire.
Finally, there are the issues of history and optics. Regarding history, the NIH budget doubled from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, which was a blessing and curse. This budget growth led most members of Congress to develop a “you already got yours” attitude toward the NIH. Regarding optics, the NIH receives the second-largest appropriation in the entire government, after the Department of Defense. Significantly increasing NIH funding, when that money could fund dozens of other programs, is politically very difficult.
But change is possible. As a result of our efforts and other factors, the NIH received a $1 billion increase in FY14 over FY13. This boost didn’t make up for sequestration entirely, but it again demonstrates Congress’ understanding that biomedical research is a worthy investment of the taxpayers’ money. These successes ensure that the PAAC and the ASBMB Public Affairs Office will continue to strongly advocate for increases in the budgets of federal science funding agencies, even in the face of the obstacles listed above.

Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb (bcorb@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at the ASBMB.