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Columbia doctors made their way to Washington D.C. for the Rally for Medical Research last Thursday, where they appealed Congress for increased National Institutes of Health funding alongside hundreds of medical professionals from across the country.

Inflation-adjusted NIH funding has slumped since 2004, losing about $5 billion over the decade. With the addition of a recession and the sequester during the government shutdown, NIH funded institutions like Columbia University Medical Center have felt a great deal of strain.

The government's proposed funding could add on $3.75 billion to the 2015 NIH budget of $30 billion. CUMC—which has a budget that represents about 53 percent of the University's total—stands to gain tremendously in 2016 if the federal government works to increase NIH funding.   

NIH funding is intricately intertwined with CUMC, which receives both direct and indirect funding that contribute to nearly a quarter of its budget. In 2014, Columbia was the number one recipient of NIH funding in New York, with total NIH funding of just over $350 million.

Senior Vice Dean of Research Michael Shelanski said this funding is absolutely vital for CUMC to continue running. In addition to funding costly facility upkeep and some faculty research, the NIH also provides grants for hundreds of graduate students.

“Only about four percent of our funding comes from tuition,” he said. “When the NIH cuts research because a project is thought to be not relevant to the public interest or because their budget is short, often there's a great deal of collateral damage.”

Despite the funding slump, things are looking up for the NIH this year. In unusual concordance, President Barack Obama, CC '83, and both houses of Congress are in agreement about increasing the NIH's 2016 budget.

Obama has proposed a $1 billion increase, and House Republicans have upped the ante further by adding another $100 million to that. The Senate's plan calls for double this: a $2 billion, 6 percent increase that would help bring funding closer to 2004 levels. Voting on these budget proposals must take place by Sept. 30, which marks the final day of the fiscal year.

The other promising avenue for funding comes as the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would direct mandatory funding to biomedical research. Put forth by a bipartisan alliance between Representatives Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and Fred Upton (R-Michigan), the bill calls for giving the NIH $8.75 billion over five years, or $1.75 billion each year. Currently, the bill has passed the House and is waiting on a Senate vote.

According to Ross Frommer, Vice President of Government and Community Affairs and Associate Dean at CUMC, the situation in D.C. is promising for CUMC—but he maintains his reservations.

“We've won the ideological battle—everyone agrees that biomedical funding needs to be increased,” he said. “We're still going to have disagreements because the reality is a practical budget issue.”

Both he and Shelanski stress that although this funding is vital to Columbia as an institution, this funding could also have a profound impact on the public.

The Rally for Medical Research, an annual event to lobby Congress for increased biomedical funding, stresses this concern on its website: “Federal funding for medical research remains in jeopardy, threatening the health and economic well-being of the nation.”

For many, like Frommer and Shelanski, NIH funding is the answer to these concerns. “It's really the one day where everybody gets together to speak as one voice about support for the NIH,” said Frommer.

Without the NIH, Shelanski and Frommer believe that basic research would not occur. And without that basic research, they said, medical progress would halt.

Rachel Dichter and Emily Sun contributed reporting. | @dangaristo

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