National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D, Ph.D., accompanied by the directors of five NIH institutes, May 18 testified before the Senate Labor-HHS-Education (L-HHS) Appropriations Subcommittee regarding the agency’s fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget proposal. This follows a previous hearing before the House L-HHS Committee in April [see Washington Highlights, April 13].
The subcommittee gave Dr. Collins a warm welcome, including Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) who highlighted that in the last 3 years of working with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), “we’ve increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 23 percent.” Sen. Murray also applauded NIH leadership’s work in a time of scientific “promise and challenge”, but also noted disappointment in the last two budget requests, highlighting a specific concern that the FY 2019 budget aims to “arbitrarily slash researchers’ salaries by 20 percent.” [see Washington Highlights, Feb. 16].
In his opening statement, Dr. Collins thanked the committee for their consistent and strong support of NIH, and highlighted five keys to success in science today. These include: a stable trajectory of financial support; a vibrant workforce; computational power; new technology and facilities; and scientific inspiration. He highlighted that the ongoing investment is paying off because early stage researchers are starting to see a stable career trajectory as NIH overcomes a decade-long funding decline when accounting for inflation. Dr. Collins later emphasized the importance of research funding in generating return on investment and local economic impact, citing “$8.38 in return in five years for every dollar allocated to NIH.”
Chairman Blunt and subcommittee members Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked a variety of questions related to the opioid epidemic and innovations into new therapies for addiction and opioid-alternatives for pain management. Some inquired about NIH’s public-private partnership with the pharmaceutical industry in this space. Dr. Collins explained that NIH is working with 33 companies in a thriving partnership. Due to the questions regarding the role of pharmaceutical companies in the origins of the opioid crisis, NIH is not receiving direct cash contributions through the partnerships; rather, the companies are “sharing data, sharing assets, repurposing compounds… and running clinical trials [through the partnerships].”
Additional questions regarding the opioid epidemic focused on neonatal abstinence syndrome, and other health concerns related to the use of fentanyl, including use of multiple addictive substances and mental health comorbidities. Committee members also inquired about NIH’s infectious disease work on Ebola and a universal flu vaccine, as well as how NIH is handling challenges of big data including organizing, sharing, and ensuring security of research data.
Alzheimer’s Disease was another common theme in questioning of NIH witnesses, including questions about research into potential biomarkers and difficulties with clinical trials recruitment. National Institutes on Aging Director Richard Hodes, M.D. thanked the committee for increases for Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias research in the FY 2018 omnibus. He noted the enormous impact of the sustained NIH funding, citing a nearly 300 percent increase in Alzheimer’s-related grants awarded between 2015 and 2017.
Joining Dr. Collins were Walter Koroshetz, M.D., director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Richard Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Ned Sharpless, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute, and Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.