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Senators Discuss Need to Increase NIH Budget, Scientific Opportunities

May 17, 2013—The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS-Ed) Appropriations Subcommittee held a May 15 hearing focused on increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the impact of sequestration and scientific opportunities for biomedical research.

Subcommittee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) began the hearing by saying it is a “perilous moment” for NIH and biomedical research, and added that success rates are the lowest in the history of the NIH “at a time when the potential for scientific breakthroughs has perhaps never been better.” Chairman Harkin said he will do everything he can to “boost” NIH funding, a sentiment echoed by both Republicans and Democrats at the hearing.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) expressed concern about sequestration’s impact on NIH and the extramural research community, and said she will do all she can to cancel sequestration. The chairwoman added she will work across party lines to ensure the Labor-HHS-Ed Subcommittee gets the allocation it needs.

Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) echoed the chairwoman’s remarks and added NIH is one of the “top investments” the subcommittee can make. He said he would like to see the budget double, or at least get NIH funding on an “upward trend” instead of a downward trend.

During his testimony, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said it is a time of “unprecedented” scientific opportunity but cautioned “we cannot ignore the current fiscal situation.” He said sequestration has “dealt a “devastating blow to NIH and to the entire biomedical research enterprise,” and called it a “defining moment” for medical research. Dr. Collins cautioned that sequestration is “compromising the future of biomedical research and slowing improvement in the health of all Americans.” Further, he said he fears “we are putting an entire generation of scientists at risk,” as many young scientists are seeking opportunities outside of science or outside of the country.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) was particularly concerned about the impact of NIH’s shrinking budget on young researchers and asked what NIH is doing to ensure young investigators can thrive. Dr. Collins said NIH does what it can to help early-stage investigators get started, but all researchers are taking a hit. He added success rates have fallen for everyone, and “we are losing significant talent all through the career range.” 

Senators discussed several scientific opportunities, including the potential for a universal flu vaccine, which Chairman Harkin noted would have “enormous” health implications, and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative [see Washington Highlights, April 5, 2013]. National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Director Story Landis, Ph.D., who accompanied Dr. Collins with several other institute directors, said the long term goal for the BRAIN Initiative is to develop treatments for patients across the broad range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including autism, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. 

Senator Shelby expressed an interest in revisiting the eligibility requirements for the NIH’s Institutional Development Awards (IDeA). Dr. Collins noted the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is working on a report on IDeA eligibility criteria and suggested the subcommittee could revisit the issue after the report is completed.

Senator Moran asked about the progress of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in addressing the “valley” between scientific discovery and patient benefit. In response, Dr. Collins shared several examples of drug repurposing to determine how drugs that already have been tested can be used to treat other diseases and conditions, as well as a collaboration between NCATS, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on biochip technology to determine a drug’s safety before it is given to a patient. Dr. Collins added the evidence is “clear” NCATS is benefiting NIH as well as the private sector and academics.

Chairman Harkin closed by noting the great strides made in terms of health as well as the need for sustained funding for NIH.

In addition to Dr. Landis, other institute directors that joined Dr. Collins included National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, M.D.; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Director Gary Gibbons, M.D.; National Institute on Aging (NIA) Director Richard Hodes, M.D.; and National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus, M.D.


Dave Moore
Senior Director, Government Relations
Telephone: 202-828-0559

Alexandra Khalife
Legislative Analyst
Telephone: 202-828-0418


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Telephone: 202-903-0806