Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Budget Hearings Resume with NSF and NIH 

With Congress’ return on April 17, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was one of the first to defend its fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget request before the Senate. Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee noted her strong support for NSF and that in the FY 2023 omnibus NSF received the agency’s largest ever budget increase of $1 billion. She also wanted to know how NSF is supporting Navigating the New Arctic—one of the 10 big ideas for long-term NSF research where NSF would establish an observing network of platforms and tools across the Arctic to document the rapid biological, physical, chemical and social changes due to warming and to leverage participation by other federal agencies. She was assured this was still an important area for NSF.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) was concerned about Republican cuts in the science area, especially in implementing the CHIPS and Science Act. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, PhD, said going back to FY 2022 funding levels would have “tremendous” impacts forcing cuts to quantum and dampening the regional innovation engine programs, which were just launched by NSF, and thereby hinder future job growth and innovations of the future. He added that this is not the time to cede our country’s progress at such a pivotal time in global competition.

Sen. John Kennedy (D-LA) asked when NSF will spend its funds in a wider swathe of states since NSF has been spending most of its money in just 10 states for 44 years since the establishment of the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR). Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) was also concerned about NSF funding going to EPSCOR states. Panchanathan said he was committed to expanding the funding beyond these 10 states and through the Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity (GRANTED) program. It is focused on addressing systemic barriers within the nation’s research enterprise by improving research support and service capacity at emerging research institutions. GRANTED has already accelerated this effort and NSF has metrics to measure its progress.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) wanted to know NSF criteria for funding artificial intelligence (AI) proposals. Currently, NSF is the largest nondefense funder of AI research. The director was enthusiastic about how AI is going to be integral to future innovation.

Sen. Van Hollen (D-MD) questioned NSF’s continued efforts to keep the U.S. at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies and to understand NSF’s efforts working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), as passed in CHIPS. Panchanathan said he has met with HBCU presidents and is targeting them for potential federal funding.

The House Appropriations Committee also held a hearing on April 19 with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concerning their budget for FY 2024. Chair Robert Aderholt (R-AL) of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee expressed concern that NIH’s biomedical research was essentially flat funded while the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) only created last year was proposed to receive $1 billion under the president’s budget. Ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) also said that NIH was critical to advancing solutions to pressing public health issues and praised NIH’s role in nutrition research for diet-related diseases. She also stated a less than 2 percent increase for NIH was insufficient and threatens the investments the committee has provided on a bipartisan basis over the last eight years to increase NIH’s budget by 60 percent.

Basic or fundamental research does not make headlines but is critical to future innovations in health care. All 356 new FDA approved drugs from 2010 to 2019 were supported by NIH funding work that provided the evidence needed for their approval, according to a study cited by Lawrence Tabak, PhD, Acting Director of NIH. Fundamental research on gene editing tools has also paved the way for new treatments and cures. 

Tabak also provided an example of how NIH was involved in developing breakthrough stroke treatment, which only resulted after decades of basic research from the 1940s to understanding the biology of enzymes that can dissolve blood clots. He testified that not all research improves human health immediately as a direct application. For example, NIH funded research on how bacteria protect themselves from viruses was such a topic. It had the unpredictable outcome of developing tools which have already revolutionized medicine. 

In the area of cancer research, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) questioned where cancer research is heading. Tabak said that diagnosing cancer earlier is at the forefront of progress and immunotherapy to train the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Fleischmann also wanted to hear how NIH was supporting the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program to advance clinical trial capabilities. Tabak said the program is training the next generation of clinical investigators and acts as a laboratory to determine better ways to perform clinical trials with those best practices transmitted to others. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was concerned with potential cuts to NIH’s extramural grants where Tabak said there were already challenges of attracting younger researchers. Hoyer also entered into the record how the pay lines have declined precipitously for most NIH institutes. 

In conclusion, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) said she heard that reducing NIH funding to the FY 2022 level would result in 5,000 fewer extramural grants, which would impact NIH’s research into endometrial cancer which particularly impacts women of color. Her colleague Rep. Josh Harder (D-CA) wanted to see faster scientific research being done at NIH and changes to its funding mechanisms. Tabak said NIH has begun focusing more on early-career investigators (ECI) supporting 1,600 ECIs as of last year —a significant increase from its yearly 1,100 goal. NIH is also providing more prizes, using a shark tank model to drive specific goals, and the ARPA-H model where program managers are in charge of funding.