Boost in Federal Funds Brings Ambiguous Benefits

After more than a year of haggling, Congress overwhelmingly passed the fiscal year 2003 budget last week, increasing federal funding for scientific research grants and student financial aid.

But it is still unclear how the budget increases—which benefit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Pell Grant award program—will affect Harvard.

NIH, the largest single source of federal grants for scientific research, received $27.2 billion, a windfall increase of between 12 and 15 percent over fiscal year 2002.

The Pell Grant received a small increase, raising the maximum yearly award from $4,000 to $4,050.

The 2003 budget fulfills a promise made by Congress in 1999 to double yearly appropriations to NIH over five years.

However, because of the way NIH monies are distributed, the possible financial benefit Harvard researchers will receive as a result of the increase is impossible to determine.

NIH grants are awarded by a competitive process in which all applications are grouped and ranked by scientific field, after which money is allocated until available funds run out.

NIH also maintains discretion over which fields will receive more money.

This year’s budget increases simply mean more grants will be funded.

“There is no direct connection between congressional appropriations and the funding of individual projects,” said Paul C. Martin, dean for research and information technology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

According to Martin, there is additional uncertainty about how the new budget will benefit Harvard because NIH money may be distributed to fields in which Harvard may not currently have strong research programs.

Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue said that the marginal increase in the maximum Pell Grant “will not increase the total grant in a student’s financial aid package,” since the University traditionally provides grants to cover whatever portion of the cost a student is unable to secure from outside sources.

Thus an increase in Pell Grants will merely result in a decrease in grants from Harvard.

Pell Grants are just one of many awards given to students as part of Harvard financial aid, which totalled $68 million last year. However, Pell Grants continue to be a “critical part of need-based funding at Harvard” and to students across the country, Donahue said.

The budgetary increases in both NIH and Pell Grants were in doubt over the last four months, during which Congress passed 11 interim budget resolutions in an attempt to keep the federal government afloat as it entered the new fiscal year without a budget.

President George W. Bush had suggested keeping funding at 2002 levels as a compromise to break the stalemate on Capitol Hill.

But the sour economy has increased the demand on all grant-funding institutions, and program cuts could have put students and research programs at risk, said Suzanne Day, Harvard’s director of federal relations.

“It could have been better, but at least they were not cut,” she said.

The outlook for fiscal year 2004, only eight months away, is even more uncertain, according to Day.

She said the unstable political climate, proposals for massive tax cuts and a slim Republican majority that has unified the House and Senate for the first time in years make predicting next year’s budget unwise.