Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, March 29, 2018

Congress passes FY 2018 omnibus spending bill with large increases for research funding.

On March 23, after months of negotiations and a last-minute veto threat by the president, the fiscal year (FY) 2018 omnibus spending bill (H.R. 1625) was signed into law.

Over the course of the previous day, the bill had passed the House by a vote of 256-167 and the Senate 65-32. The $1.3 trillion measure adheres to the new discretionary spending levels codified in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 that became law in mid-February.

Research funding agencies are among the many programs that see their budgets rise in the new spending measure, as summarized here:

Agency FY 2017 Funding Level FY 2018 Funding Level (Omnibus) Change from FY 2017-FY 2018
National Institutes of Health (NIH) $34.08 billion $37.08 billion +$3 billion (+8.8%)
National Science Foundation (NSF) $7.47 billion $7.8 billion +$295 million (+4.1%)
Department of Energy Office of Science $5.39 billion $6.26 billion +$868 million (+16%)
Veterans Administration Medical & Prosthetic Research Initiative $675 million $722 million +$47 million (+7%)
USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative $375 million $400 million +$25 million (+6.6%)

Within the $37 billion NIH budget, Congress directs the agency to spend $496 million on various scientific initiatives specified by the 21st Century Cures Act – including cancer research, precision medicine, regenerative medicine, and neurobiology research – as well as $500 million on research to combat the opioid epidemic. In report language accompanying the bill, lawmakers also highlight funding increases for antibiotic resistance and Alzheimer’s research, and the development of a universal influenza vaccine.

The omnibus report also contains language pertaining to several NIH policies. The report lauds NIH efforts to increase transparency and regulatory oversight via the recent proposed changes to the definition of clinical trials. But in light of concerns that the definition change could adversely affect fundamental research involving human participants, Congress directs NIH to delay enforcement of its new policy, and asks NIH to seek additional feedback from the research community to inform the most suitable reporting standards for this expanded range of projects. For projects that would have been considered clinical trials under the prior definition, the new policy goes into effect immediately.

Language pertaining to facilities and administrative costs at research institutions is also included.  In response to recent proposals by the administration to cap the federal government reimbursement rate for these costs, the new law prohibits NIH from deviating from its current reimbursement methodologies.

NSF also receives a substantial increase in the new spending bill. The Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account, which funds the lion’s share of NSF research grants, grows to $6.33 billion, an increase of approximately $300 million. The law also includes increased funding for the Foundation’s educational programs. In contrast, in a compromise between the House and the Senate, the measure includes a small budget reduction for the construction of three research vessels.

The NSF report language is largely free of prescriptive policy directives. Among the topics mentioned, Congress directs NSF to complete repairs on hurricane-damaged research facilities and to apprise congressional committees as the Foundation moves ahead with planned divestments in instruments and equipment.

Having finished the FY 2018 budget, Members of Congress departed Washington for the Easter and Passover recess. When they return the week of April 8, appropriators will turn their attention to the FY 2019 budget as the political world barrels toward the 2018 midterm elections.