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House Appropriators Discuss NIH Funding
March 23, 2012—Members of the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee offered general praise for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at a March 20 hearing, but Republicans on the subcommittee criticized the administration’s proposal to cut FY 2013 funding for the NIH’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program and questioned how the agency’s new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) would affect NIH’s investment in basic science.
Subcommittee Chair Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) opened the hearing by encouraging NIH to develop a “governance process” that would “support the historical level of 55 percent of NIH resources toward basic science” and to “resume the historical balance of 10 percent for the intramural programs” instead of “divert[ing] funds from the extramural to the intramural science programs.”
He and the three other Republicans who attended the hearing – Reps. Rodney Alexander (La.), Mike Simpson (Idaho), and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) – all expressed disappointment with the cut to IDeA, which affects each of their states. NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., explained that the administration interpreted the FY 2012 boost in IDeA funding as a one-time increase and that the FY 2013 budget request accordingly returns the program’s funding to its FY 2011 level, but Chairman Rehberg clarified that the FY 2012 increase was intended as “an ongoing opportunity within the various programs.”
Republicans also cautioned that Congress did not intend for NCATS to “compete with industry or become a drug developing organization,” and inquired whether NCATS resources would be better spent bolstering the agency’s basic research investment in the difficult budget environment. Dr. Collins described that NCATS primarily will focus on identifying and remedying bottlenecks in the drug development process, not duplicating private sector efforts. Tom Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health and acting director of NCATS, further explained that, with the exception of the new Cures Acceleration Network, all NCATS programs existed previously within other institutes and centers.
Despite questions about specifics within the NIH budget, the subcommittee universally commended the agency’s work. Rep. Simpson described NIH as “one of the best-kept secrets in Washington,” and Rep. Lummis indicated that NIH is an area where “the federal government has a role because there are so many diseases that are suffered by people that will never have a cure because, unless the federal government gets involved in research, the economics just isn’t there.”
In response to questions from Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Dr. Collins noted that the chances for a young researcher to be funded today has fallen to 1 in 6, the lowest in history, compared to 1 in 3, ten years ago. He also described research investments internationally: “China just announced a 26 percent boost in one year for their support of basic research. India has been in double digit increases for several years. Europe, despite their difficulties, plan[s] to increase research spending by 40 percent over the next seven years. And even Vladimir Putin last week announced the intention to increase support for Russian basic research by 65 percent.”
Rep. DeLauro reminded the subcommittee that they “came together in a bipartisan way to double the NIH budget nearly 15 years ago” and that “members of this subcommittee on both sides have continued to support NIH funding even in the face of budgetary constraints.” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) concurred, noting despite the “difficult fiscal climate,” it is “imperative that we provide the NIH with a minimum of $32 billion.” Rep. Lowey’s comments echo the recommendation in a letter delivered March 20 to the subcommittee by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), and more than 150 other representatives (see related story), and the funding recommendation by the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research.
A second panel of non-government witnesses discussed how NCATS will interact with industry and described reasons why the private sector relies on a well-funded NIH.
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