Congressional Response to COVID-19 Includes New Research Funding

By Lyly Luhachack, PhD, ASHG Policy & Advocacy Assistant

In a time of crisis, it is heartening to see all communities, including the scientific and medical communities, working together and helping one another in big ways or small. As such, ASHG remains dedicated in serving members and others within the genetics and genomics community. One of the ways we are looking to help you is by keeping abreast of the happenings in Washington D.C. – especially in Congress and at the NIH – that are relevant for the research community. As well as providing updates through our blog, ASHG has a dedicated page for COVID-19 related resources, including a link to NIH’s COVID-19 page listing the latest coronavirus research funding announcements. Note: the most recent of these is a notice issued by NHGRI on March 31.

Recent happenings on Capitol Hill

Congress has shown in recent weeks that it regards biomedical research to be a key part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with two of the three spending packages recently passed by Congress providing new money for research.  The first of these, the “Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act,” Public Law 116-123, provided $836 million for COVID-19-related research to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH, and a further $2 billion for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for research and development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. The latest bill, “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act,” now Public Law 116-136, expanded the pool of money available to other federal agencies to ramp up research efforts. A detailed breakdown of the provisions for NIH institutes and centers, totaling $945 million, follows:

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: $103 million
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: $706 million (in addition to the $836 million in the first bill)
  • National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering: $60 million
  • National Library of Medicine: $10 million
  • National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: $36 million
  • Office of the Director: $30 million

NSF also received $75 million and has initiated its RAPID funding mechanism. There is also research funding for other agencies including the Departments of Defense and Energy.

Implications for next year’s NIH budget?

Understandably, the widespread disruption caused by the pandemic is delaying the normal federal budgeting process. With the new Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 starting this coming October, lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees (responsible for writing spending bills) around this time would typically be receiving input from agencies and other stakeholders and drafting and discussing new spending bills. Indeed, ASHG President Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD, recently submitted written testimony to Congress on behalf of the Society, advocating for increasing NIH’s budget. However, Congress continues to be focused on COVID-19 related relief efforts, with House Democrats advocating for a fourth spending package that addresses the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the regular work of the Appropriations Committees will likely be further held up.

In addition to the COVID-19 epidemic, there are other challenges for Congress passing legislation to fund the government in FY 2021. One is that a spending cap significantly limits the amount of new money available to distribute among federal agencies. This year is, of course, also an election year, and election years historically slow the work of Congress. At this time of uncertainty, it is unclear what this will mean for NIH’s FY 2021 budget and funding for genetics and genomics research.  ASHG will continue to monitor Congress and keep members posted.

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