Senators in two rounds of questions at a March 8 Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, “Saving Lives Through Medical Research,” praised the research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and urged a commitment to sustainable increases in NIH funding. Four witnesses from academic medical centers testified about progress and opportunity in medical research on Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, and infectious diseases, among other priorities.
In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) reminded the panel, “Consistent, sustained increases in funding are critical for biomedical researchers as they undertake the complex, multi-year studies necessary to pursue new treatments and cures.” Pointing to the subcommittee’s efforts to build on a $2 billion boost to the NIH budget in fiscal year (FY) 2016 with another $2 billion increase in FY 2017 [see Washington Highlights, June 10, 2016], he continued, “But the way to begin a pattern is in the second year,” and emphasized, “The fiscal year 2016 funding increase cannot and should not be a one hit wonder.”
Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) concurred, expressing concern that President Trump’s expected FY 2018 budget proposal to shift $54 billion in non-security spending to defense [see Washington Highlights, March 3] would threaten the subcommittee’s ability to continue supporting NIH and other health priorities in the spending bill, a point echoed by other members of the subcommittee.
The chair and ranking member of the full committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) also attended the hearing, with Sen. Leahy noting, “Scientists don’t hit ‘pause’ on studies and continue the research when federal funding resumes. The ups and downs of the budget are particularly harmful in the medical research field.”
Others in attendance included Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with jurisdiction over the NIH authorization, Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Sen. Moran relished the enthusiastic bipartisan support for NIH called on Congress to complete work on ten remaining FY 2017 spending bills, including the Labor-HHS-Education bill, through an omnibus bill, rather than a continuing resolution through the end of the fiscal year.
The lawmakers also discussed the longstanding tradition of enabling NIH to set research priorities to avoid missing scientific opportunities through political interference from Congress. Chairman Blunt indicated, “Everybody on the subcommittee, and frankly, Mr. Chairman, I think on our full committee is really committed to this being one of our priorities, which is why we are working so hard to see if we can add that annual $2 billion sometime between now and the end of April.”
Witnesses included: Timothy J. Eberlein, M.D., director of Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Surgeon-in-Chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital; Thomas J. Grabowski Jr., M.D., director of Memory and Brain Wellness Center, Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, Integrated Brain Imaging Center, University of Washington, Seattle; Stacey Schultz-Cherry, Ph.D., member of the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee; and Jennifer M. Sasser, Ph.D., assistant professor at University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi.