Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Benjamin Krinsky
Thursday, August 16, 2018

U.S. Senate Returns from August Recess; Members of Congress Write Letter to NIH about Sexual Harassment Policies; OMB Outlines Agency Priorities

After an abbreviated summer recess the Senate returned to business this week, deliberating judicial appointments and other legislative matters. The upper chamber is still expected to consider its next “minibus” appropriations measure comprised of the Labor, Health and Humans Services (LHHS) and Department of Defense appropriations bills. As previously reported, this measure would fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at $39.1 billion, a $2 billion increase over fiscal year (FY) 2018. Given that the Senate did not reconvene until August 15, this spending package is likely to be addressed the week of August 20.

The House of Representatives remains on summer recess. When they return, members of both chambers will continue to negotiate various spending measures, including the Energy and Water/Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations package that passed the House and Senate in June. The fate of these bills before the fiscal year’s end is unclear, strongly suggesting passage of a continuing resolution to keep the government open after September 30.

On August 6, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), House LHHS Appropriation Subcommittee Ranking Member, sent a joint letter to NIH Director Francis Collins to voice their concerns about sexual harassment in academia, and to ask what the agency is doing to address these problems in NIH-funded laboratories and institutions.

In a press release, the Members quoted their letter to state intent:

We write to express deep concern regarding harassment in the workplace and to obtain information on how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working to address the issue both within the agency and in research facilities that receive NIH funding. Federal funding should not support laboratories and institutions where workplace harassment is allowed to continue unaddressed. It is critical that NIH take proactive steps to hold its grantees accountable for fostering inclusive environments. We firmly believe the agency can promote the highest levels of scientific merit while also doing more to prevent and address discriminatory practices and harassment by NIH-funded researchers.

The letter goes on to ask questions about NIH policies, including whether the agency intends to implement recommendations of the recent National Academies report on this topic. The letter also asks about steps NIH is taking compared with the recent harassment policy updates promulgated by the National Science Foundation.

On July 31, the White House Office of Management and Budget released a memorandum outlining the administration’s priorities for research and development, which guides various Executive Branch departments and agencies as they prepare their FY 2020 budget requests. The memo includes a section entitled “American Medical Innovation” that directs agencies “to prioritize basic medical research, particularly for personalized medicine, areas underserved by industry, disease prevention and health promotion, and the translation of these biomedical discoveries into life-saving diagnostics, treatments, and cures.” Other priorities mentioned include computing/artificial intelligence, space exploration, manufacturing, and technology transfer to the private sector.