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NIH Director Discusses Sequestration, Peer Review with House Subcommittee
June 22, 2012—National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., testified before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee at a June 21 hearing that reviewed progress to date in promising fields of science, restructuring within NIH, and the potential consequences of budget cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 2, 2013, through sequestration.
The top Democrats on the full committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and subcommittee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), both asked Dr. Collins to describe how the NIH will cope with the estimated $2.4 billion cut the agency faces in FY 2013 as a result of sequestration. Dr. Collins said of the looming cuts, “If there is something that I’m most concerned about in terms of an event that could really disrupt and do serious damage to the progress that we now see in medical research, this is it,” noting that NIH would award 2300 fewer grants, representing a quarter of the total grants it would award for the year.
He continued that institute and center directors would “have to spread the pain” across all disciplines and diseases—a consequence Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) described as “tragic.” Though the agency would not administer the cuts “in a completely blind fashion,” the cuts likely would force the funding success rate below the current 17 percent, a historic low compared to the traditional 30 percent.
Members also inquired about a proposal by the NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) to consolidate the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism into a new addiction institute, which Dr. Collins stated would not lead to “a shrinkage or an expansion” of the NIH’s current addiction portfolio, but rather “rearrangement” within that portfolio.
Several committee members discussed the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and how NIH partners with industry to translate the basic research it supports into commercial applications available to consumers.
Subcommittee Chair Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) asked Dr. Collins to explain the NIH’s peer review process, inviting his staff to discuss the topic in further detail with subcommittee staff. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) continued that line of questioning, specifically seeking information on how NIH ensures that its review panels are free from conflicts of interest.
The hearing was cut short by a lengthy series of House votes, though Chairman Pitts encouraged subcommittee members to submit their questions to NIH for a written response. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) expressed interest in further discussion about indirect cost rates at universities, asking Dr. Collins to “justify … for U.S. taxpayers” such NIH support. Describing the potential for NIH to conduct additional research, he continued that the “answer is not just to raise taxes.”
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