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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Director Testifies Before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee

    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations
    Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

    National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and six directors of NIH institutes April 11 testified on the fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget proposal before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS). This follows Dr. Collins’ April 2 testimony before the House Labor-HHS Subcommittee [see Washington Highlights, April 5].

    As in the House, Senate subcommittee members were pleased to hear updates from the NIH, and noted that the administration’s FY 2020 budget request [see Washington Highlights, March 15 and March 22] does not align with the Subcommittee’s bipartisan support of medical research. Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) shared that as chair, “re-prioritizing funding for the National Institutes of Health after a decade of stagnation has been my number one priority … I am disappointed the FY2020 budget request cut the agency by $4.9 billion or 13 percent. This is not a choice I will make when we write the FY 2020 Labor-HHS appropriations bill.”

    Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) commented that “the NIH is perhaps the best example of an issue where members on both sides of the aisle have been able to come together … to work in a bipartisan way to provide increased investment in research that improves the health and wellbeing of people, invests in our local our communities, and supports our country’s continued leadership in science.”

    Full Committee Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added, “I’m not interested in cutting your budget, I’m interested in increasing it,” though he acknowledged challenging overarching budget issues for FY 2020 [see related story]. Chairman Shelby concluded, “I think this is a great investment for America, for the world, [and] for humanity.”

    Subcommittee members showed a genuine interest in hearing updates on the agency’s progress and inquired about a range of topics, including new treatments for diabetes, developments in public/private partnerships, and updates in opioid use disorder treatments and preventions. In addition to disease-specific inquiry, several subcommittee members requested updates on support for early stage investigators. Dr. Collins shared in response a graphic showing the R01 grant equivalent for early stage investigators has more than doubled from fewer than 600 awards in FY 2013 to 1287 awards in FY 2018.

    Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Murray also used the hearing as an opportunity to raise new concerns. Chairman Blunt discussed his concern about the potential influence of foreign governments on NIH-supported research, noting the important balance between protecting American research and fostering a collaborative research environment. Dr. Collins shared his deep concern about “egregious” incidents, citing that 55 researchers are currently under investigation for their roles in stealing intellectual property, receiving undisclosed funding from foreign countries, or divulging preliminary data from the grant review process.

    Ranking Member Murray shared concern about the behavior of NIH-funded researchers, citing high rates of sexual harassment of female researchers and urging the NIH to “step up and demonstrate greater leadership in holding its partners and extramural grantees accountable as well. It is not acceptable for NIH to defer to its grantee institutions or other agencies to address harassment,” Ranking Member Murray stated. Dr. Collins commented that the treatment of women in medicine and science is “unacceptable and morally indefensible” and vowed to do better. This exchange follows Dr. Collins’ Feb. 28 update on NIH’s efforts to address sexual harassment in science [see Washington Highlights, March 1].

    Joining Dr. Collins were Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Doug Lowy, MD, acting director of the National Cancer Institute; Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; Jon Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging; and Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.