Created by on 04/10/2012

On March 28th, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the fiscal year (FY) 2013 funding request for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Featuring testimony from Dr. Francis Collins, the two-hour session provided a friendlier reception for the NIH Director than a similar appearance before the House LHHS Subcommittee a week earlier. Several NIH institute Directors including Dr. Thomas Insel, Dr. Harold Varmus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Griffin Rodgers, and Dr. Richard Hodes accompanied Collins to the Senate hearing. Issues of major concern to Senators in attendance were President Obama’s proposal to flat-fund NIH in FY 2013, the potential impact of sequestration, the eligibility requirements for the Institutional Development Award program, and the ability of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to turn medical discoveries into life-saving treatments. 
In their opening statements, subcommittee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL) offered praise for the work underway at NIH but indicated they were worried about the U.S.’s ability to retain its role as the world leader in medical research if the budget were to remain at the FY 2012 level. Senator Shelby said that he did not agree with the funding request proposed by the administration and believes that “NIH funding should be made a priority and that its benefits extend well beyond its research discoveries.” In addition, he observed that the administration’s request “does not keep pace with biomedical research inflation and as a result in inflationary adjusted dollars the NIH is 17 percent below where they were ten years ago.”
During multiple rounds of questioning following Dr. Collins’ testimony, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) noted that flat funding for NIH is especially troubling because “it sends a message to the next generation, the potential researchers, scientists, and physicians, that the certainty of their career path or the value of what they do is not recognized.” Dr. Collins responded that, “It is indeed a scary time for new investigators because they have seen the likelihood of receiving funding decrease from 25-35 percent to a grim 17 percent.” Responding to a question from Subcommittee Chairman Harkin on the impact of sequestration, Dr. Collins stated that the potential cuts would hinder efforts in basic and clinical research, amount to a $2.4 billion loss for NIH, and result in the reduction of approximately 2,300 research project grants, almost a quarter of new and competing grants. Collins added that success rates for new applications would fall to historically low levels and said he felt the burden would particularly be felt by first time investigators. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski asked what could be done to speed up the process from basic research to the development of new therapies for patients and “what are the right resources to provide to NIH to foster discovery?” Dr. Collins replied that stable funding for NIH is the most important way to support the research enterprise. At the conclusion of the hearing, Harkin noted the budget situation, stating “things are tight around here but we’ll do our best to find a small increase hopefully.” A webcast of the entire Senate LHHS hearing is available on the subcommittee’s website.