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NCI Director Discusses Sequestration, Cancer Legislation at Press Club Event

September 28, 2012—The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus, M.D., Sept. 25 spoke at the National Press Club as part of its Newsmakers series, where speakers are invited to give remarks and entertain questions from the audience. At the event, Dr. Varmus touched on a range of topics, such as NIH funding, the dangers of sequestration, and the recent recalcitrant cancer bills in the House and Senate.

Dr. Varmus said the NIH is “indispensible for medical research,” and expressed concern that despite its importance, there has been little change in the budget since the five-year doubling ending in 2003. As a result, when adjusted for inflation, the NIH budget is at 2001-enacted levels and has lost approximately 20 percent of its purchasing power.

Further, and even more troubling, the looming across-the-board cuts, also known as sequestration, will result in a $2.5 billion cut effective Jan. 2, 2013 [see Washington Highlights, Sept. 21]. When asked how NIH is preparing for sequestration, Dr. Varmus said they are “looking to Congress to avoid it” as it will have a devastating impact on research and could result in 40 percent fewer grants awarded within NCI. Dr. Varmus said this would drive the all-time low success rates even lower than the current 17 percent at a time when scientific opportunities are “remarkably high” as a result of discoveries from prior investments.

Regarding the recent Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act of 2012 considered by the House (H.R. 733) and Senate (S. 362), Dr. Varmus was asked if he thought legislation focusing on specific cancers is a slippery slope, running the risk of favoritism or advocacy groups seeking similar legislation. Dr. Varmus responded that it is, indeed, a “slippery” and “dangerous” slope and, while pancreatic cancer is a devastating disease, “it is not the only devastating disease.” Dr. Varmus said he is pleased the bill has been broadened to focus on recalcitrant cancers, but said NIH is already engaged in similar efforts and Congress’ time would be better spent “paying attention to upending the sequestration threat.”

Despite these concerns, Dr. Varmus said he remains an optimist and thinks that “we will eventually, with the right people and levels of support, see our ingenuity overcome many of these problems.”


Alexandra Khalife
Legislative Analyst
Telephone: 202-828-0418


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