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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a longtime advocate for the National Institutes of Health, offered new details on Thursday of legislation she has introduced to increase funding for medical research -- adding her voice to a growing debate in Congress over research grants.

The proposal would lift budget caps on the Bethesda-based agency, increasing the ceiling from $29.4 billion to $45.1 billion by 2021 -- an amount Mikulski said would help the agency deal with a rapid increase in medical inflation that has for years undercut the NIH funding.

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Mikulski's proposal is unlikely to advance as is, but it does add to a bipartisan mix of ideas gathering on Capitol Hill over NIH-funded research. House Republicans, with input from Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, are proposing an overhaul of medical research funding -- and have signaled a willingness to increase spending if changes are made.

"Investments in NIH are investments in bioscience research, education and America's technology advantage," Mikulski, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "Every day, the NIH is meeting compelling human needs by developing new treatments and cures."

The increases called for in Mikulski's proposal would be more pronounced in the first two years, an effort to help the agency make up ground lost from sequestration spending cuts.

Mikulski does not offer any proposals for how the increased spending -- if it was approved the Appropriations Committee -- would be paid for, a likely sticking point with Republicans.

Mikulski's office highlighted a problem noted by Harris as well as Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels: The difficulty young scientists have in obtaining research grants. The average age of first-time recipients of the agency's most sought-after funding is 42, even though studies suggest scientists are likely to come up with their best ideas in their mid- to late 30s.

The proposal from Mikulski doesn't offer specific policy changes to address the concern.

Harris' proposal would create a fund dedicated to young researchers and would require the NIH to support the kind of high-risk research that can lead to breakthroughs.

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