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Cancer Research Funding

Key Points

  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services, is the Nation’s principal agency for cancer research and coordinates the National Cancer Program.
  • As a federal agency, NCI receives its funds from Congress.
  • Although NCI’s budget has been relatively flat in recent years, averaging approximately $4.9 billion per year, funding for specific cancer types and research categories may fluctuate for a number of reasons.
  • Other federal agencies, state, and local governments, voluntary organizations, private institutions, and industry spend substantial amounts of money on cancer-related research.
  1. What is the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and what is its role in supporting cancer research?

    NCI is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that form the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. In the National Cancer Institute Act of 1937, NCI was established as the Nation’s principal agency for cancer research. In the National Cancer Act of 1971, NCI was further charged with coordinating the National Cancer Program.

    As a federal agency, NCI receives its funds from Congress. These funds support research at the Institute’s headquarters in Bethesda, MD, and in laboratories and medical centers throughout the United States and in other countries.

    The cancer research program coordinated by NCI investigates the causes, prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer through various research projects and clinical trials. Information about cancer research projects supported by NCI in the United States and Canada can be found in the NCI Funded Research Portfolio.

  2. How is NCI's budget determined?

    Overall budget proposals for federal government spending—commonly known as the President’s Budget  proposals—are formulated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). As part of this process, NCI and the other NIH Institutes and Centers submit budget documents to OMB. President’s Budget proposals are submitted to Congress each year in early February and reflect the Administration’s budget and management priorities for the next fiscal year, which begins on the following October 1. (The federal government’s fiscal year extends from October 1 through September 30—so, for example, FY 2014 began on October 1, 2013, and ended September 30, 2014.) Congress considers the proposals and then recommends appropriations for all federal government agencies. Final appropriation amounts must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by the President to be enacted into law.

    In the National Cancer Act of 1971, NCI was given the authority to prepare and submit an additional annual budget proposal directly to the President for review and transmittal to Congress. Among NIH institutes, this authority is unique to NCI, and the budget proposal created in response to it is often referred to as the “NCI Professional Judgment Budget.” The NCI Professional Judgment Budget is submitted to the President before the President’s Budget proposal is submitted to Congress and may be considered by OMB in preparing the President’s Budget proposal.

    NCI Professional Judgment Budgets describe in detail the optimum amount of funding needed to make the most rapid progress against cancer and to provide NCI with the resources necessary to lead the National Cancer Program. Typically, the President’s Budget proposal for NCI is less than the amount proposed in the NCI Professional Judgment Budget.

  3. What was NCI’s budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013? How has the budget changed in recent years?

    NCI’s budget for FY 2013 was approximately $4.8 billion. Overall, NCI’s budget has been relatively flat in recent years. During the period from 2005 through 2013, the NCI budget averaged $4.9 billion per year.

    NCI’s FY 2013 appropriation reflects a decrease of 5.5%, about $293 million, from FY 2012. Most of this reduction was the result of government-wide spending cuts, commonly known as sequestration, implemented under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

    NCI’s budget for FY 2014 was approximately $5.1 billion. However, details about FY 2014 funding levels by type of research grant, cancer types, and other general categories will not be available until spring 2015.

    At the closing of each fiscal year, NCI analyzes its portfolio of research grants and projects.  Through this comprehensive analysis, NCI assigns each research grant and project to one or more specific disease areas and cancer research categories and reports the results through the NCI-Funded Research Portfolio and in the NCI Fact Book.

  4. How much does NCI spend each year on research for specific types of cancer?

    The following table shows NCI spending in FY 2011, 2012, and 2013 for the 10 most common types of cancer in the United States, based on 2012 incidence estimates (and excluding basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers).* The cancers are listed in decreasing order of incidence (i.e., from the highest number of new cases to the lowest).

    Nearly half of NCI’s budget supports basic research that is not specific to one type of cancer. Thus, these funding levels cannot adequately account for basic research projects in each disease area or research category where that research is relevant, nor are they a comprehensive accounting of the full NCI budget. In addition, funding for specific cancer types and research categories may fluctuate from year to year for a number of reasons. For example, funding may fluctuate because of individual research projects or programs that commence or conclude during a particular year.

    *Source of spending data: NCI Office of Budget and Finance (OBF).

    Cancer Type2011 Spending
    (in millions)
    2012 Spending
    (in millions)
    2013 Spending
    (in millions)
    Information about funding for other types of cancer and for general categories of research (e.g., survivorship) can be found in the NCI Funded Research Portfolio or the NCI Annual Fact Book. Additional information about NCI's budget is available on OBF's website.

  5. Why do some cancer types or areas of research receive more or less than others?

    For any given fiscal year, NCI does not make funding decisions based on predetermined targets for a specific disease area or research category.

    Rather, the Institute relies heavily on scientific peer review, in which highly trained outside scientists review research proposals and judge them on factors such as scientific merit, potential impact, and likelihood of success. Research proposals are also further evaluated by NCI leadership to consider additional factors such as public health significance, scientific novelty, and overall representation of the research topic within the NCI portfolio. In some cases, the National Cancer Advisory Board also reviews the NCI research funding recommendations. 

    This intensive approach ensures that NCI supports the best science aligned with its mission.

  6. Do other federal government agencies fund cancer research?

    Yes. Other federal government agencies, including other NIH Institutes and Centers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense, fund cancer research. In addition, state and local governments, voluntary organizations, private institutions, and corporations spend substantial amounts of money on cancer-related research.

  • Reviewed: September 12, 2014

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