On Wednesday morning, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education heard testimony from NIH leadership in regards to their agency’s FY12 budget request. In addition to Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Ranking Member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., subcommittee stalwarts Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., were joined during the hearing by new members Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Jerry Moran, D-Kan.
Sen. Harkin opened the hearing by welcoming the panelists: Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health; Anthony Facui, 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, Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute.
Sen. Harkin described his long-standing support for the NIH, and pointed to both its health-related and economic benefits as justification for his backing. Sen. Shelby followed Sen. Harkin in praising the institute, but raised concerns about the ability of the NIH to partake in translational research, in particular mentioning questions he had on the proposed National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences.
During the question period, Sen. Shelby returned to the theme of translational research. He directly asked Dr. Collins why the FY12 NIH budget request lacked a line-item budget for NCATS, and whether the issue was being rushed. Collins responded that, despite feelings that the center opening should be delayed until FY13, he felt that waiting an extra year would cause the NIH to miss out on opportunities that could be taken advantage of presently. He added that the budget request was being finalized and reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, and that he hoped to have it submitted to the subcommittee within “a few weeks.” Shelby also asked several questions concerning the ability of the NIH to pass off its translational discoveries to private industry, which Dr. Collins admitted was an issue that had to be considered prior to approval of projects.
Both Sens. Harkin and Shelby posited questions about reducing childhood obesity. Drs. Rogers replied by describing several programs at the NIH that are studying the issue, and referred the senators to the NIH Obesity Research Task Force. Dr. Shurin added that the NIH was collaborating with the Center for Disease Control and the United States Department of Agriculture on the topic. Meanwhile, Dr. Varmus talked extensively about various cancer programs, including, in response to a question from Sen. Reed, ones explicitly focused on pediatric cancers.
After giving an enthusiastic statement in support of biomedical research, Sen. Moran asked if the NIH faced any barriers other than financial ones. Dr. Collins replied that the pipeline of new researchers was drying up, due to what he called the “sad state of science education,” and also referred to the rigid structure of scientific disciplines, though he felt these structures were loosening.
Overall, the committee came off as quite receptive to the NIH and its mission. As Dr. Collins noted, the entire biomedical research community was grateful to the subcommittee for its work in ensuring that the budget cuts to the NIH in the FY11 be as minimal as possible. This amiable relationship will need to be cultivated and maintained moving forward, as scientists fight to sustain the gains they have made in the lab in the face of expected budget crunches.