Throughout most of 2014, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce committee was engaged in the 21st Century Cures initiative. The goal of this initiative was to speed the discovery, development and delivery of therapies for the myriad illnesses that affect Americans today. The committee held numerous round tables and hearings, and it solicited comments from the community on a variety of topics. Furthermore, these efforts were being conducted in a bipartisan fashion, which was a pleasant break from the partisan bickering that dominates much of politics today.
Yesterday, a nearly 400-page discussion draft of the 21st Century Cures Act was introduced, and with it came the realization that the bipartisanship that characterized the early work of this initiative had diminished. Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., had worked together to start and drive this initiative forward. However, after the legislation was released, DeGette said, “While I don’t endorse the draft document, I know that with continued engagement, we can reach a bipartisan consensus to help advance biomedical research and cures.”
While we won’t speculate as to the specific provisions that DeGette and other Democrats find objectionable, this discussion draft does present some concerns for basic scientists. The discussion draft includes language that would require NIH directors to approve every new R-series grant and ensure that “the monetary investment is worth the potential discovery.” Requiring federal officials to predict the magnitude of payoff for a research grant is not possible, and is reminiscent of the High Quality Research Act introduced in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee two years ago, that was largely derided by the scientific community.
Some additional concerns the ASBMB has are:
- 2001 establishes a new nonprofit organization with the mission of facilitating the development of discoveries into cures. It is not clear to us how this NPO is significantly functionally different from the SBIR/STTR grant system.
- 2261 increases funding for young investigators without specifying the goals or reasoning behind the increase.
- 2281 allows the director of the NIH to set aside money for high risk, high reward science without defining what constitutes “high risk” or “high reward.” Defining this will potentially reduce misunderstandings between the NIH and the scientific community as well as future Congresses.
- In general, there is a focus on disease-specific research in the legislation to the detriment of basic research.
In a statement, ASBMB Director of Public Affairs Benjamin Corb applauded the work done on the 21st Century Cures Act so far. He encouraged the committee to focus on helping basic researchers because “often these breakthroughs are identified not through targets specified by policies, but by investigator initiated research and curiosity.” The ASBMB will not endorse the 21st Century Cures Act in its current form, but the society is hopeful that a robust discussion will produce a bill that it could support.
This version of the 21st Century Cures Act is a discussion draft and the committee is encouraging members of the community to submit comments on how to improve the draft. The ASBMB will certainly be submitting comments that point out specific areas of concern and how they could be remedied for the benefit of basic researchers.