The proof is in the budgeting

December 17, 2014

When we last discussed Representative Andy Harris it was in the wake of an editorial he published in the NYT. It consisted of a call to put hard targets on the NIH for reducing the average age of the first R01, standard Golden Fleece style carping about frivolous research projects and a $700M “tap” of the NIH budget. I speculated that this last was the real target because the “tap” is money appropriated to the NIH that then goes to “program evaluation” and the AHRQ. There is the possibility that this is a covert attack on the ACA (“Obamacare”).

The recent appropriation to the NIH passed by the Congress is interesting because it addresses these three issues. According to Jocelyn Kaiser at ScienceInsider:

The report also directs NIH to pay more attention to the age at which new NIH investigators receive their first research grant… but lacks that specific target.

So toothless verbiage, but no more.

Lawmakers also address a perennial concern: that the amount NIH spends on specific diseases doesn’t take into account the burden that disease creates or death rates. The report “urges NIH to ensure research dollars are invested in areas in which American lives may be improved.” It also tells NIH “to prioritize Federal funds for medical research over outreach and education,”

“urges”. Again, this is totally impotent. Two strikes on Rep Harris.

One recent concern about NIH’s budget—that each year some money is skimmed off for other Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies—is remedied in the bill. It says that the $700 million that NIH is set to contribute to the “tap” this year will come back as $715 million for the agency.

Well that seems like Rep Harris got a win on the tap, no? And his goal was what again?

For one thing, we need to eliminate a budget gimmick, known as the “tap,” that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to shift money out of the N.I.H. budget into other department efforts. The N.I.H. lost $700 million to the “tap” in 2013 alone. Instead, the money should be placed under the control of the N.I.H. director, with an explicit instruction that it go to young investigators as a supplement to money already being spent. If we don’t force the N.I.H. to spend it on young investigators, history has shown that the agency won’t.

“lost”. “supplement to money already being spent”. This creates the strong impression that Rep Harris was trying to increase the NIH budget by $700M. And yet. The overall NIH appropriation only increased by $150M.

So in point of fact Rep Harris took three strikes.

Or so it appears.

Of course, if his agenda was to go after those agencies that received their support from the tap, perhaps he didn’t strike out after all. We’ll have to see if those agencies got all their money in this budget and, more importantly, if they remain this way in subsequent years. It is not impossible that breaking the previous recipients of the “tap” down into individual line items in the budget will allow them to be eliminated one by one.

One thing is for sure, Rep Harris didn’t do anything concrete to help out the young investigator issue at the NIH in this budget appropriation.

UPDATE: Actually I screwed this up. If there is no net decrease in the budget and the NIH no longer loses $700M to the tap obligations, I guess this is a net gain. My bad.

15 Responses to “The proof is in the budgeting”

  1. Philapodia Says:

    Why would any senator or representative give a rats ass about shifting the age of the first R01 for new and early-stage investigators? They have bigger fish to fry, such as pandering to their base and getting re-elected.

    Of course, Harris is not above injecting politics into science, as demonstrated by his inquiry into Jonathon Gruber’s grant after he apparently said some stuff about Obamacare.


  2. Physician Scientist Says:

    I’m confused. So the $30 billion dollar budget is actually $29,300,000,000 because of the tap? If this year’s budget is $30.15 billion and the $700 million tap goes away, isn’t this a net gain of $850 million?


  3. zb Says:

    “If NIH has considered rescinding Dr. Gruber’s grant funding in light of recent reports about his judgment”

    How horrid.

    At least, I presume the answer to that question will be “No”.


  4. datahound Says:

    I have been trying to sort this out. The NIGMS budget is cut by $700M in this budget (see page 134 in ) and then increased by $715M from the tap. Thus, the net to NIGMS is +15M. I think NIH overall does get an increase, but it is spread out and I have not been able to find all of it. I have also not been able to figure out if AHRQ is funded or not, given that the Tap funds do not appear to be available.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    I think I screwed this up, see update.

    from Kaiser’s column, it looks like the things that were funded by the tap will be taken care of elsewhere in the budget. It will be interesting to learn where, how and for how much.


  6. Grumble Says:

    “as demonstrated by his inquiry into Jonathon Gruber’s grant after he apparently said some stuff about Obamacare.”

    Click through and read Harris’s letter to Collins. In public comments, Gruber apparently called the taxpayers stupid. Not a particularly smart move when your research is funded by those same taxpayers.


  7. dsks Says:

    “Thus, the net to NIGMS is +15M.”

    which adjusted for 1.3% inflation means more cuts for NIGMS, right? 😦

    I recall the expectation was an 2% increase for the NIH overall (did that happen?), which I guess means there’s $600M on top of the reclaimed tap funds banging around somewhere.


  8. dsks Says:

    Actually, adjusting to BRDPI would be more accurate, and that’s 1.7%.

    Thank you congress critters.


  9. Philapodia Says:


    Had the issue that Gruber was talking about not been a GOP wedge issue, Harris wouldn’t have cared if the called taxpayers stupid. What scares me is that a politician is trying to defund a peer-reviewed NIH project based on politics. What if one of us becomes an outspoken critic of a politician (which is our right)? Will they now have a precedent for seeking retribution by trying to get our grants axed?


  10. datahound Says:

    DM: It appears that you did not “screw it up”. For FY2014, the appropriated budget was $29.926B. From this, NIH contributed approximately $700M to the “tap” so that the amount available to NIH was $29.2B. In the bill that just passed, the NIH appropriation is $29.369 before the tap. The tap is then taken but added back. The net result is that NIH is up about $150M compared to FY2014. This does not count the Ebola investment.

    Bottom line: There is not windfall to NIH from the change in how the tap is managed. Congress cut the budget to compensate for the lack of the loss of the tap.

    See page 135 in


  11. dsks Says:

    So (do I have this right?)… to keep the budget consistent with FY2014 levels, this year’s budget should have been ~$30.4 bn. So the fact is that, even after shutting the tap off, the allocated funds for FY2015 amount to ~$30.1 bn, which actually means an effective cut of ~1%.

    Coz if that’s right then, yeah, this is just rearranging ships on a balsa wood deckchair.


  12. datahound Says:

    dsks: I am not sure where the $30.4B figure comes from.

    NIH will have $150M more in FY2015 than in FY2014 plus some targeted funding for Ebola vaccine development. This is a 0.5% increase…an increase but still substantially less than inflation.


  13. dsks Says:

    I was adjusting the FY2014 budget to account for the predicted FY2015 BRDPI* (although I just realized I pulled a value of 1.7% from the wrong sheet here, it’s more like 2.2%).

    * I’m not really savvy about this index, but as I understand it seems like a measure of inflation specific to bio research costs.

    But yeah, in the grand scheme of things all that matters is that NIH funding isn’t keeping track with its expenses.


  14. Grumble Says:

    @Philapodia: I completely agree with you. But I also think that it’s kind of dumb for anyone whose livelihood is supported by the taxpayers to rant about taxpayer stupidity.


  15. Philapodia Says:

    It is dumb, but Gruber is an economist and not a politician. From what I can see he’s a very good economist but is politically tone deaf and is always putting his foot in his mouth when stepping out of his area of expertise. Unfortunately, in politics perceptions matter, and when it’s the ACA someone who helped with the technical details of a large plan saying stupid stuff becomes a trusted adviser to the White House who reveled in the duplicity needed to get the ACA passed.


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