Budget deal brings a sigh of relief from higher ed—mostly


Congressional negotiators on Sunday reached a deal on a roughly $1 trillion omnibus spending bill that would fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year (FY) and includes a $2 billion funding increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The deal, which Congress still needs to approve, comes after the House and Senate last week passed a one-week spending bill that funds the federal government through May 5. The latest deal would fund the government through Sept. 30, when FY 2017 ends.

Under the latest spending agreement, NIH would get a $2 billion funding increase over the next five months, including an additional:

  • $476 million for the National Cancer Institute;
  • $400 million for Alzheimer's disease research;
  • $120 million for former President Barack Obama's All of Us Research Program, formally known as the Precision Medicine Initiative, as it seeks to recruit volunteers for genetic testing and health tracking; and
  • $110 million for Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to support efforts to map the human brain.

The proposed NIH funding boost sharply contrasts an earlier budget outline from the White House, which had proposed cutting $5.8 billion from the NIH.

The deal also restores funding to year-round Pell Grant eligibility, which community college leaders in particular have advocated for. However, it includes a $1.31 billion cut from the Pell surplus, Inside Higher Ed reported. The remaining $6.2 billion would carry over to the following year. The deal also slightly raises the maximum grant award by $105.

The deal slightly increases funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The earlier White House budget outline had proposed closing these programs entirely.

Finally, the deal would increase funding for the military and for border security, but it does not include funding for the wall that President Trump has vowed to build along the United States' border with Mexico.

Also see: Our experts predict the effects of Trump's immigration orders on the research enterprise

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says of the deal, "This agreement is at once a confirmation of the institutional supremacy of Congress on budgetary issues and a serious bipartisan pushback against the administration's rather extreme proposals." He adds, "I can only assume that the 2018 budget will be similarly mainstream and constructive."

Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), highlights the mixed news for Pell Grant funding. "This deal gives with one hand and takes with the other," she says, adding, "When I look at the big picture, it's sending a mixed message about the importance of college affordability. It restores needed aid, but raids money from the program."

But the deal is a welcome reprieve for universities and their chief research officers, notes Ingrid Lund, a practice manager with the University Research Forum at EAB. Federal grants, many from the NIH, have historically provided the majority of funding for university research.

"However, it is only a temporary solution," says Lund. "The bigger picture is that the past few decades have largely seen stagnating federal research funding. And the message sent by President Trump's budget proposal indicates we should not expect a reversal in that trend."

Longer term, universities may face tougher competition for share of federal dollars and increasingly need to look to alternative funding sources like corporate entities or philanthropic donors, Lund argues.

"Attracting funding in this challenging landscape requires many new competencies including better communicating the impact of research to a more diverse stakeholder base" (Advisory Board Daily Briefing, 5/1; Facher, STAT News, 5/1; Kaplan/Flegenheimer, New York Times, 4/30; Miller, Washington Times, 4/30; Cowan, Reuters, 5/1; Hughes, Wall Street Journal, 4/30; Snell, "PowerPost," Washington Post, 4/30; Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 4/6; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 5/1; Harris, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/1; Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 5/1). 

Federal funding deficits have affected research grants and PhD enrollment

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