WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration's plan to cut spending for biomedical research by spreading one-year financial grants over three years is illegal, according to a ruling by the General Accounting Office.
Congress had voted to have the money spent in a single year, said the GAO, which interprets the laws on congressional appropriations.
The President's budget sought to extend the spending for some funds in the budget of the National Institutes of Health. But the General Accounting Office said that specific congressional approval would be needed to spend the money over a three-year period.
"We consider it an opinion, not a final ruling," Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday in discussing the GAO's action Tuesday.
Issue Being Reviewed
The issue is being reviewed at the President's Office of Management and Budget and by the parent of the national institutes, the Department of Health and Human Services, Wyngaarden said. Meanwhile, "nothing has changed in the President's decisions on the budget," he said.
The GAO said that the Administration can spend the money in one year, as originally directed by Congress, or it can withhold spending entirely. However, Congress could later mandate that the money be used as originally authorized.
The GAO report is "good and useful," said New York University scientist Michael Shelanski, director of a brain research project that would lose its funding under the Administration's plan. He thinks that it will "force the Administration and Congress to sit down and negotiate."
However, Shelanski, professor and chairman of the pharmacology department at NYU, is not optimistic about chances for funding his own research project on brain development. The Administration does have authority to reduce the total number of grants awarded.
"The Administration is betting Congress won't fight much over this, what with everything else going on," Shelanski said. "Everyone I've talked to at NIH says our chances are still problematic," Shelanski said of his own project.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D--Mass.) and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) are supporting legislation to require the National Institutes of Health to fund the 6,500 grants approved by Congress for the current fiscal year, rather than the 5,000 grants sought by the Reagan Administration.