Saturday, February 19, 2011

Budget Breakdown: Federal Funding for the NIH

As my regular readers know, I use Science Decoded for my long form journalism class. As part of that, sometimes my posts have to meet requirements outlined by my professor. This week, the assignment was to write about budget. My recent post on Wisconsin's budget protests brought up the issue of understanding what your government pays for, so I've decided to do a breakdown of the 2012 NIH budget.
As citizens it is important to know what is included in the federal budget. Among academics, intellectuals, people who are informed about their government, and people who pretend to be informed about their government this is a generally accepted statement. But why is budget important, really?

Well, my first answer is that you shouldn't whine or praise something that you don't understand. So (even though people do) you can't say you disagree with or approve of the way things are budgeted, when you don't even know what is in the budget, or why it is included and thus deemed worthy of public funding. I think it SHOULD be generally accepted that you don't open your mouth about things you don't understand (even though people always do...) so for the sheer ability to speak intelligently about your beliefs, I think people should know what is federally funded.

The other reason that I think people should take the time to look at budget appropriations (what money goes to who for what) is because people take federal funding for granted. The beautiful thing about being Americans is that what we want matters, and what we say can effect our government. We trust our government to do with our money what we want them to, but we should still make sure that the government follows through. You can't just assume that what you believe deserves funding, is actually being funded. Do you want your money to be spent finding a cure for cancer? (I'll assume you said "yes") Do you know how much money the government actually spends trying to find a cure for cancer?** (I'll assume you said "no") Isn't that a problem?

To be a part of the American democracy you need to know what your government does. At the very least, you should know who the government is giving your money to, so you can then decide if you support or are opposed to the government's actions. Have an opinion. Have an informed opinion. The information is out there and readily available for those who seek it.

So now that I hope I've convinced you that you should care about budget, I come to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I know I'll sound like a snot for saying this, but it AMAZES me that many people, whom I consider to be quite intelligent, don't know what the NIH is, or what it does. The NIH is the federal government's biomedical research organization. In addition to conducting its own research, the NIH is a huge funding machine that awards grants to thousands of researchers around the country (and even internationally) to pay for the costs associated with doing research. These costs include, but are not limited to, lab equipment (your test tubes and bunsen burners,) technology (from microscopes to genome sequencers,) consumable supplies (your reagents and pipettes,) and researcher or technician salaries.

Biomedical research is a multi-million dollar industry. But only a fraction of the research conducted in the United States is actually funded by industry. By far, the most important funding organization for researchers who are not industry based (ie: most college professors) is the NIH. Without federal support for these researchers, most would not be able to conduct their experiments. The budget that has been requested by President Obama for fiscal year (FY) 2012 to fund the NIH and all of its programs is $32.0 Billion. Yes, Billion.

The request by President Obama must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate before it is approved. But, these proposed numbers still demonstrate exactly why the NIH and its budget are so important. The proposed $32.0 billion represents an increase of $745 million from FY 2010 - an increase of 2.4%. However, current estimates place inflation from 2010 at 3%. So, even though the budget is going up, the NIH will be able to fund LESS projects than it did in 2010 because the increase will not be enough to counter the effect of inflation. In spite of this, the budget request still shows that research is a priority for this administration (ie: it could be much worse).

What does that $32 billion actually get you? Well, the NIH office of budget has a great table that outlines how the money is expected to be allocated among its institutes, in addition to a great document (with diagrams) that compares the budget for each institute over the last few years (which is where I pulled the following numbers from).

What falls under the NIH, and thus gets parts of its $32 billion? (listed from most funds to least):
National Institutes of...

  • Cancer (NCI) - $5,196,136,000 (**this is what the government spends finding a cure for cancer)
  • Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) - $4,915,970,000
  • Heart, Lung, and Blood - $3,147,992,000
  • General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) - $2,102,300,000
  • Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases - $1,837,957,000
  • Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) - $1,664,253,000
  • Mental Health - $1,517,006,000
  • Child Health and Human Development  - $1,352,189,000
  • Office of the Director - $1,298,412,000 (Former NHGRI head, Francis Collins is NIH Director)
  • Center for Research Resources - $1,297,900,000
  • Aging - $1,129,987,000
  • Drug Abuse (NIDA) - $1,080,018,000
  • Eye Institute - $719,059,000
  • Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases - $547,891,000
  • Human Genome Research (NHGRI) - $524,807,000
  • Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - $469,197,000
  • Deafness and Other Communication Disorders - $426,043,000
  • Dental and Craniofacial Research - $420,369,000
  • National Library of Medicine - $387,153,000
  • Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering - $322,106,000
  • Minority Health and Health Disparities - $214,608,000
  • Nursing Research - $148,114,000
  • Complimentary and Alternative Medicine - $131,102,000
  • Buildings and Facilities - $125,581,000
  • Environmental Health Sciences - $81,085,000
  • John E. Fogarty International Center - $71,328,000

The NIH funds a lot of smaller agencies, each with their own specific health focus. Still, even the smallest money allotment represents way more money that I could ever imagine having at my disposal (how my bank account would rejoice at seeing $71 million dollars). I hope that seeing the numbers actually broken down by agency will help people see why budget is important. There are a lot of agencies, handling a lot of money, but they are working on problems that effect the everyday lives of millions of Americans - from malaria to depression and everything in between.

Budget, particularly federal budget is a complex issue, and I haven't by any means covered everything here. I encourage everyone to take their new understanding of how the NIH is broken down to follow the money trail even more and see what specific research projects are funded by each agency under the NIH's leadership. The NIH's RePORT system is one place where you can learn more about how much is spent on specific diseases. The NIH's Office of Extramural Research can also help you learn more about how researchers go about applying for and receiving money from the NIH.

There is a lot of good information out there about budget. If you aren't one for reading budget documents online, here is a video of the FY 2012 Health and Human Services (HHS) Department budget presentation. You'll see Francis Collins (head of the NIH) third from the right, because the NIH falls under the jurisdiction of the HHS (that $32 billion for the NIH comes out of the even bigger HHS budget of $79.9 billion). Head of the HHS Kathleen Sebelius gives a pretty easy to follow breakdown of the important points in the FY 2012 budget.

Budget matters. It's your money, don't you want to know where it goes?
Update 2/21/11 - It is important to remember that the $32 billion number is just a request. It could very well change if Republicans pull their support from the NIH. Current predictions say the Republicans aim to cut $1 billion from the proposed budget. Check out the New York Times coverage for more information


  1. Great post! Nice to see the breakdown of the money and where it goes. Follow the money, as they say.

  2. Very nice break down, Erin!

    I wonder if Collins has any say on where the money goes. I recall him heading the genome project, which doesn't look like it's getting too much money nowadays.

    Have you read much about the possibility of Obama not passing the $32 billion as proposed? I remember reading about potential partisan roadblocks but am unsure of where the issue is now.

  3. I know that it is definitely possible that the $32 billion won't be approved but as far as I can tell from searching the government websites, the HHS budget hasn't come up for a vote yet. Its definitely something to keep watching to see if and how the department will react to budget cuts.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. What an excellent and well-researched post, Erin. I'm also surprised by how few people seem to know what the NIH does -- although perhaps the NIH should take some responsibility for that, as well.

    The New York Times reports today that House Republicans want to cut NIH funding by more than $1 billion, reversing 15 years of bipartisan support for expanding the NIH's funding. ( ).

    Coincidentally, the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference last weekend in Washington, D.C., Penn State researcher Caroline Wagner's contended that the U.S. will no longer lead the way in science and technology research (see and

    According to Wagner, China's set to lead the way in number of studies published in all fields by 2015.

  5. Thanks for the information, Amy! It will be very interesting to see which institutes take a hit if NIH funding does get cut. I'm sad, but not surprised, to hear that the US is losing its grip on being a science and technology research leader.

  6. Agreed. Most people don't realize, even, that NIH is a whole collection of institutions or how much the budget varies between those different institutes. If we could value facts more in our budget discussions then we'd definitely encourage a more rational process. Which we could definitely used. Terrific research here!