Created by on 03/27/2012

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins was greeted with both praise and criticism at a March 20th House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year (FY 2013) budget for the nation’s medical research agency. Appearing before the subcommittee for the first time in two years, Collins received bipartisan commendation for NIH’s role in supporting research to improve human health and advance our understanding of various diseases. However, the director also faced continued questions about the role of the newly-authorized National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and strong opposition from three subcommittee Republicans (Mike Simpson, ID; Cynthia Lummis, WY; and Rodney Alexander, LA) to NIH’s proposal to reduce funding for the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program. In addition,  subcommittee chairman Denny Rehberg (R-MT) used his opening statement to urge the NIH Director to continue the investment in basic research commenting, “I suggest NIH develop a governance process towards this end; otherwise, the increased focus on translational research could squeeze out NIH's primary mission, that of basic science. We do not want to wake up in the future to find a NIH director without a stable full of science available for translation because we took our eye off the ball of basic science.” In his testimony, Collins explained that NCATS will focus on identifying and overcoming obstacles in the drug development process to complement, not compete with, private sector efforts to develop new therapies. This message was echoed by NCATS Acting Director, Dr. Tom Insel, who appeared with Collins at the hearing.
During a robust questions and answers period following Dr. Collins’ formal testimony, subcommittee ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) asked the director about the proposed $50 million increase for the Cures Acceleration Network, the experience of young researchers competing for research grants, and the effect on biomedical research conducted by NIH if across-the-board cuts required by sequestration where to occur in 2013. Collins responded that young researchers face a one in six chance of receiving a grant, the lowest in the agency’s history. He also stated, “If, in fact, the sequesters were to kick in on January 2, 2013, that would result, according to the [Congressional Budget Office] CBO, in a loss of about 7.8 percent of the NIH budget, $2.5 billion. As a result of that, 2,300 grants that we would have planned to give in FY 2013 would not be able to be awarded. It would be devastating.” Representative Simpson described NIH as “one of the best-kept secrets in Washington,” and Representative Lummis said she believed 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.” Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) acknowledged the difficult fiscal climate facing the subcommittee but endorsed FASEB’s funding recommendation, saying “it is imperative that we provide the NIH with a minimum of $32 billion.”
A second panel featured testimony from representatives of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and Roy Vagelos the former chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Merck. These witnesses discussed the collaborations between the drug industry, non-profit organizations that fund research and NIH, offering their perspectives about how the private sector relies on strong federal support for medical research. In addition, both BIO and the Michael J. Fox Foundation offered support for the NCATS mission and urged NIH to develop substantive partnerships with industry regulators, principal investigators, and patient organizations to ensure that the new center will be able to achieve its goals. Testimony from the hearing is available on the LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee website.