The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee held a hearing yesterday on continuing U.S. global leadership in research and medical innovation. The witnesses were Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
The chair of the HELP committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., began the hearing by stating this is the beginning of the Senate’s version of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce committee’s 21st Century Cures Act. It is not clear if the Senate will draft their own version of such a bill and work out differences with the House at a later time, or whether they will simply try to amend the House bill should it pass.
Many of the questions in the hearing focused on Hamburg and the FDA. Regarding the questions directed at Collins, two interactions were notable. First, Alexander asked Collins, “What one or two things can Congress do to help accelerate discoveries to treatments and cures.” Collins responded by saying that travel restrictions on federal scientists should be lifted and that the NIH should be allowed to carry over funds from one fiscal year to the next.
Second, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, asked questions about translational research at the NIH. Cassidy said, “The taxpayer wants translation,” and then proceeded to ask Collins the percentage of MDs and MD/PhDs that were successful at translational research relative to PhDs. Collins was not able to answer the question directly, but he did remind Cassidy of the importance of basic research. Cassidy seemed to brush this point aside. He then suggested that some PhDs “do not have the entrepreneurial spirit,” and these scientists should receive less money than those who are successful in translational research. Cassidy’s time was then up and Collins did not have a chance to respond.
Overall, the tone of the hearing was congenial, and the senators praised the work of the NIH and the FDA. The committee showed its bipartisanship on many topics including improving the funding situation for the agencies and an increased concentration on Alzheimer’s research.
For more on this process as it develops, follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter.