Congress Passes FY 2016 Funding Bills

On December 18, 2015, Congress passed a $1.067 trillion omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 2029) that will fund federal agencies and programs in fiscal year (FY) 2016. The total amount reflects an additional $50 billion that was made available through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The bill provides the National Institute of Health with its first significant budget increase in several years. Other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, will receive modest budget increases. Highlights of the funding bill are below.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The omnibus provides the NIH with a $2 billion increase (+6.3%), bringing the total budget of the agency to $32.1 billion. Because some programs are designated to receive part of the increase, the budgets of most institutes and centers (ICs) will increase by approximately 4%. Programs receiving designated increases include: $200 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI); $350 million for Alzheimer’s disease research; $85 million for the BRAIN Initiative; and $100 million for combatting antimicrobial resistance. These increases are in addition to the current levels of funding, with the exception of the PMI, which is a new program in FY 2016.

A number of provisions were included in report language accompanying the Omnibus:

  • NIH will be expected to increase support for Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards in proportion to at least the level of increase for most ICs (4%). NIH will also be expected to provide a stipend increase consistent with 2016 pay raises for federal employees (1.3%).
  • The Institutional Development Award program (IDeA) will receive $321 million, a significant increase over the FY 2015 funding level of $273 million. The report states that the increase is in recognition of the program’s success and calls on NIH to maintain at least this percentage in subsequent budget requests.
  • The report calls on the NIH Director to “continue the traditional focus on basic biomedical research” and reiterates the importance of basic research in laying the groundwork for future translation. The report also requests an update in the FY 2017 budget request on NIH’s efforts to ensure a focus on basic science is preserved.
  • NIH will be expected “to consider the burden of disease when setting priorities and developing strategic plans” so that resources are directed to areas with significant opportunity to improve the current and future health of the American population.
  • The report language expressed continued concern about the inability to reproduce some findings in biomedical research, and directs the NIH “continue to stress the importance of experimental rigor and transparency of reporting of research findings to enhance the ability of others to replicate them.”
  • Funding for the Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) will be continued at no less than the FY 2015 level.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

The NSF received a modest increase of $119 million (+1.6%), bringing the total budget to $7.46 billion. Total funding for research and related activities will be set at $6.03 billion, with $147 million going to support the multi-agency BRAIN initiative. Language in the House version of the bill that would have imposed deep cuts in funding for the geosciences and social and behavioral sciences was eliminated in the final version of the legislation. Nevertheless, funding for the social and behavioral sciences directorate will be held to the FY 2015 level. The bill also contains language that will require abstracts to “articulate how the project serves the national interest.”

Veterans Affairs (VA)

Medical and Prosthetic Research at the VA received a $41.8 million increase (7.07%) bringing the Program’s total budget to $630.7 million.

National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

NASA’s budget increased by $1.28 billion (7.08%), for a total FY 2016 budget of $19.29 billion. Funding for science increased 6.56% to $5.589 billion.

Travel Restrictions for Federal Employees

Congress also took a step toward addressing problematic travel restrictions for federal employees in the Omnibus bill. In 2012, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued Memorandum M-12-12 with new travel policies for all federal employees. This action was intended to address perceived misuse of taxpayer dollars for federal travel expenses. Agency implementation of these policies resulted in significant administrative burden for federal employees, including federally-employed scientists.

Because Congress had directed federal agencies to adhere to the policies set forth in that specific memorandum, OMB has been unable to modify it to alleviate the administrative burden. To address this problem, the Omnibus included language permitting agencies to adhere to any future revisions of OMB travel policies.