This month, for the first time in almost two years, the appropriations subcommittees on labor, health and human services and education in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate held hearings on the National Institutes of Health.
On March 20, members of the House subcommittee heard testimony from NIH Director Francis Collins on the fiscal 2013 budget for the NIH and the development of the new NIH center, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. In their opening statements, both Chairman Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., commented on the bipartisan support for the NIH and biomedical research. During the hearing, several other subcommittee members expressed the need for strong federal funding for the NIH, specifically providing at least $32 billion for NIH in FY13.
Rehberg did voice his concern that NIH may be focusing too much of its efforts on translational research and moving away from its core mission of basic research. In addition to Collins, three other witnesses from the extramural community testified about the function and goals of NCATS. Roy Vagelos, former Merck CEO and American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member, was skeptical of whether or not NCATS would be able to fulfill a unique position in the translational research pipeline. However both Scott Koenig, CEO of the biotech company Macrogenetics, and Todd Scherer, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, were more supportive of the NCATS mission.
Then, on March 28, Collins testified before the Senate Appropriations LHHS subcommittee. This hearing focused almost entirely on the FY13 budget plan for NIH. Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, voiced concern over President Obama’s request for an additional $80 million to the NIH for Alzheimer’s research. Harkin emphasized that the research funding should not come from the Department of Health and Human Services fund, stating that the NIH had the flexibility to account for the additional money within its own budget. However this could force the NIH to further squeeze the amount of funding that would go to grants on other areas of research in order to carve out extra money for Alzheimer’s-specific research grants.
At both the House and Senate hearings, Collins was asked how NIH would be affected if Congress fails to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit and if NIH is hit with a mandatory 7- to 9-percent budget cut. Collins replied that a cut of that size could result in as many as 2,300 fewer new and competing grants in the next fiscal year. Collins stated simply, “It would be devastating.”
On March 29 the House subcommittee heard from testimony from twenty witnesses representing various research, health and education organizations in a public hearing before the subcommittee members. Among the witnesses was ASBMB president Suzanne Pfeffer. Pfeffer’s testimony highlighted the many contributions basic research has made to improve the health of our nation and called for an allocation of $32 billion for the NIH in FY13, with the goal of $35 billion by FY15.
There is discussion that the House could begin marking up its appropriations bills for FY13 as early as May. Stay tuned to the ASBMB science policy blotter for updates on the appropriations process.