Created by on 05/17/2011

On May 11th, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins appeared before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee to discuss the Obama administration’s request for a 2.4 percent funding increase for biomedical research in the fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget. Although Collins was the only witness to deliver formal testimony, he was accompanied by Drs. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Griffin Rodgers, Director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Susan Shurin, Acting Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute. The seven senators (Harkin-IA, Jack Reed-RI, Mikulski-MD, Sherrod Brown-OH, Shelby-AL, Moran-KS, and Kirk-IL) who participated in the two-hour hearing praised Dr. Collins for his leadership of the agency and several mentioned the ongoing need to continue the federal investment in NIH. However, concern about the budget outlook for the agency amid congressional efforts to reduce domestic spending was an overarching theme throughout the hearing.

In his opening statement, Senate LHHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) referenced the $322 million cut to NIH that was enacted as part of the final FY 2011 budget agreement and noted that it could have been much worse under the proposal (HR 1) initially passed by the House. He then sharply criticized the FY 2012 budget plan drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), stating that “If that plan were approved, severe reductions to NIH research would be unavoidable.” Senator Harkin also expressed grave concern that the success rate for NIH grant applications was projected to be between 17 and 18 percent in FY 2011 – the lowest in the agency’s history.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) used his opening remarks to reassert his support for federal investment in basic biomedical research. In addition, he spoke about the need to fund more translational research and acknowledged that NIH’s plan to establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) was an interesting proposal. He made it clear though that he has concerns about whether NCATS is the right mechanism for taking taxpayer funded discoveries to the marketplace given that NIH is not a drug developer. He also chastised NIH for failing to provide specific structural details or a budget for NCATS and questioned “how the LHHS Subcommittee could be expected to support a program that does not yet exist in budget documents?”
In his prepared testimony, Dr. Collins focused on four innovative areas in which NIH is investing to turn discovery into health, specifically mentioning the agency’s efforts to accelerate progress through the use of technology, apply science to prevention, enhance the U.S. economy and global competitiveness, and advance translational sciences. He also told the subcommittee about his visit to the Beijing Genomics Institute in China last year, explaining that it is the world’s largest facility for mapping the human genome and will soon have the ability to produce higher quality DNA-sequence data than all U.S. facilities combined. The Director ended his remarks by sharing the story of a young boy from Wisconsin who suffered from a mysterious intestinal illness that was successfully treated after his doctors used gene sequencing techniques developed by NIH to isolate the mutated gene that was responsible for his condition.
Following Dr. Collins’ formal remarks, subcommittee members engaged the Director in two rounds of questions on a variety of subjects including NCATS, disease-specific research underway at the agency, and how NIH collaborates with other federal agencies. Chairman Harkin asked Collins about the impact of language originally included in HR 1 (that did not become law) that would have mandated NIH to fund a specific number of research grants each year, rather than rely on the established peer review system to make decisions about how to fund science. Dr. Collins stated that such a proposal was “deeply troubling” to the agency and could seriously interfere with NIH’s ability to fund the best research. Harkin also inquired about the latest results of the ongoing Diabetes Prevention Project, pressed Dr. Fauci for an estimate on how close NIH was to developing a universal flu vaccine, and asked Dr. Varmus for an update on the development of new therapies to treat cancer, referencing the approval of Gleevac ten years ago as the most recent example of a blockbuster drug that is currently available to patients.
Senator Shelby followed up his earlier comments about NCATS with specific questions about when the LHHS Subcommittee would receive additional details about the proposed center, including the budget request. Dr. Collins explained that NIH had hoped to have that information available prior to the hearing and said that he intended to get it to the subcommittee within the next few weeks. He reiterated that NCATS would not create any new programs but rather reorganize existing resources. Shelby also asked about the status of NIH research on health disparities, the importance of behavioral research in understanding obesity, a recent NIH roundtable held to examine new uses for drugs that were halted or discontinued during previous developmental efforts, the status of research efforts to address Cystic Fibrosis, and the outcome of NIH’s ongoing collaborations with the Food and Drug Administration.
Jack Reed (D-RI) questioned the Director about the percentage of NIH funds that support pediatric cancer research and Jerry Moran (R-KS), a new member of the subcommittee, asked if there was anything other than lack of funding that was impeding research progress. Senator Moran also stated that he “planned to support medical research in a big way” and shared details of his recent visit to the molecular library program at the University of Kansas where he was able to observe first-hand how excited researchers there were about the projects they are working on. Long-standing NIH champion, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), peppered Dr. Collins with questions about the number of research grants the agency is able to fund compared to the amount of requests submitted by researchers. The Director re-stated that the FY 2011 success rate is expected to be the lowest in history and said that only approximately one in six applications will be approved. Senator Mikulski also asked about the agency’s efforts to provide support for young researchers, prompting Collins to mention that NIH has created a working group (see related story in this newsletter) chaired by Princeton University President Dr. Shirley Tilghman charged with developing a model for creating a sustainable and diverse biomedical research workforce. As Chairman Harkin closed the hearing, Dr. Collins thanked the LHHS Subcommittee members for their past support for biomedical research and for making NIH a budget priority even in difficult economic times.