Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, April 25, 2019

Budget and Appropriations Uncertainty Looms; Collins Testifies Before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee

With Congress away for spring recess, Washington and the nation await further progress on the fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations process. Just before the break, the House postponed action on H.R. 2021, a proposal to raise the Budget Control Act spending caps. The House shelved a vote on the measure amidst disagreement among Democrats over the relative levels of defense vs. non-defense spending. Meanwhile, preliminary conversations about a budget deal have begun between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and the White House.

On April 11, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, testified before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on the administration’s FY 2020 budget. Drs. Douglas Lowy (National Cancer Institute), Griffin Rodgers (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases), Anthony Fauci (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), Jon Lorsch (National Institute of General Medical Sciences), Richard Hodes (National Institute on Aging), and Nora Volkow (National Institute on Drug Abuse) also testified.

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed their strong support for the NIH budget. Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) expressed his “disappointment” that the White House proposal called for cuts; he reaffirmed his desire to continue increasing NIH funding. Subcommittee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) also expressed her dismay at the proposed cuts and voiced her support for recent NIH increases. Full Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) added that he’s “not interested in cuts, he’s interested in increasing” the NIH budget.

During the hearing Senators asked a range of questions. Sen. Blunt was particularly interested in how NIH is addressing threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research from foreign entities, while ensuring the U.S. continues to have a collaborative research enterprise that welcomes international scientific talent. Dr. Collins said there have been “egregious” violations of NIH policy on the sharing of confidential grant information and intellectual property, with federal misconduct investigations underway at 55 U.S. institutions. But he also stressed the importance of avoiding racial and ethnic profiling and discrimination against foreign scientists.

Sen. Murray asked a series of questions about NIH activities to combat sexual harassment. She said that “NIH needs to step up and demonstrate greater leadership” to prevent harassment, including meaningful steps to address harassment in both intra- and extramural programs. Collins acknowledged the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and said NIH is working hard to address the issue.

He apologized for not acting fast enough, adding that “we’re determined to do better.” He said NIH is trying to find ways to create a more welcoming environment and elevating more women to leadership positions.