A week before the expected release of the president’s full budget request, the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee May 17 convened an oversight hearing to discuss the impact of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Subcommittee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) opened the hearing by celebrating the success of the NIH. “Investment in NIH has been the key driver in making the United States the world leader in biomedical research and has led to vast improvements in life expectancy and quality of life,” he said, noting that NIH funds medical research throughout the country.
Chairman Cole also highlighted the $2 billion increase Congress provided the NIH in fiscal year (FY) 2017 [see Washington Highlights, May 5] and expressed his dismay with the proposed FY 2018 NIH cuts put forward by the Trump Administration in its preliminary budget [see Washington Highlights, March 17]. Specifically, the president’s budget blueprint proposes to provide $25.9 billion for NIH in FY 2018, which would be an $8.2 billion cut below the comparable FY 2017 level and the lowest level for the agency since FY 2002. If implemented, Chairman Cole said the cuts “would stall the progress that our recent investments were intended to achieve and potentially discourage promising scientists from entering or remaining in biomedical research.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) urged her colleagues to reject the proposed NIH cuts, saying they “cannot turn back the clock” on the progress of the subcommittee and work at the NIH.
NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, testified on behalf of the agency and was joined by five NIH institute directors. In his opening testimony, Dr. Collins explained, “Virtually none of the substantial gains in reducing human suffering and extending longevity over the last century would have happened without basic science.” He also thanked the subcommittee for the FY 2017 budget increase, saying it will “ensure that our nation remains the global leader in the life sciences and advances in human health.”
In addition to questions about the public health impact of investments in medical research, members of the subcommittee inquired about the economic impact of NIH. Dr. Collins explained that, thanks to research, the cancer death rate has been dropping one percent per year and, “Each one percent drop is worth $500 billion to our economy.” When Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) posed a question about job creation, Dr. Collins replied that the NIH supports 379,000 jobs directly, but the broader research ecosystem that depends on NIH as its foundation supports 7 million jobs nationwide.
In response to questions from Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) regarding the federal government’s support for facilities and administrative expenses (F&A) for research, also referred to as “indirect costs,” Dr. Collins described the substantial impact that cuts to F&A reimbursement would have on universities and other research institutions and, by extension, on the research enterprise. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) also expressed concern that cuts to F&A reimbursement would negatively affect research institutions, noting that comparisons to foundations are misleading, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) reminded the panel that the magnitude of the administration’s proposed cut would necessarily lead to less research.
Subcommittee members also raised the budget blueprint’s proposed elimination of the Fogarty International Center. Ranking Member DeLauro expressed her concerns that the proposal would threaten the nation’s ability to respond to emerging infectious diseases. In response, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pointed out that many of the scientific leaders who were in charge of responses to global health crisis, like AIDS or Zika, were scientists trained at the Fogarty International Center. He said these scientists are part of an army “in defense of disease” who will continue to have an impact.