House appropriators hear from NIH director on FY17 budget request

It’s appropriations season on Capitol Hill, and committees are hearing testimony from agency heads justifying their fiscal year 2017 budget requests.  Later this week, we’ll provide a review of the National Science Foundation hearing, but today let’s look at the National Institutes of Health hearing highlights.

What we learned

U.S. House appropriators really like the NIH … and want to give it more money.

  • Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla) opened the hearing expressing his pride at Congress providing a $2 billion increase for the NIH in last year’s appropriation and criticized the President Barack Obama’s plan to cut $1 billion in discretionary spending at the NIH this fiscal year, saying, “Frankly, I do not plan to let the $1 billion cut stand. We need to ensure an efficient basic biomedical research base is sustained to pave the way for these long-term advancements.”
  • Colleagues on both sides of the aisle echoed this sentiment. Rep. Hal Rodgers (R-Ky.), the chair of the full appropriations committee stated, “I’m disappointed to see the (president’s) request cuts NIH discretionary funding by a billion … and then backfills the hole with over $1.8 billion in mandatory money.  I look forward to meeting your (NIH’s) requirements through the regular appropriations process.”
  • Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) praised last year’s increase and remarked, “I called on this committee to once again commit to doubling funding for the NIH.” Lowey also, however, was critical on the administration’s discretionary cut in favor of mandatory funds, saying, “As unappropriated, the (Labor, Health and Human Services) Department’s request for substantial sums in mandatory funding is on concern.”
  • Committee ranking member Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) testified, “I must note that while NIH is now funding $32.1 billion thanks to the $2 billion increase, that funding has not kept pace with the rising cost of biomedical research,” adding, “The budget is clearly constrained by sequestration and arbitrarily low budget caps.”

NIH Director Francis Collins brought his crystal ball with him.

Collins, in his opening remarks provided 10 areas of research that will have breakthroughs in 10 years.  We’ve listed them in summary form for you here:

  1. New technologies are allowing researchers to study in detail one cell, allowing researchers to decode the process by which individual immune cells attack and destroy healthy tissue in autoimmune disorders, for example.
  2. Tools developed by the BRAIN Initiative will identify hundreds of different types of brain cells.
  3. Researchers will be able to identify individuals at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease and provide effective therapies aimed at slowing or preventing the disease.
  4. An effective treatment for spinal cord injuries will be developed.
  5. Researchers will develop a safe and effective artificial pancreas that will help patients with diabetes manage their diseases.
  6. Induced pluripotent stem cells IPS will make rebuilding a damaged heart possible, rendering heart transplant, organ waiting lists, and anti-rejection things of the past.
  7. New vaccines will be readily available
  8. Genomics, neuroscience and structural biology will unveil new targets for the treatment of pain.
  9. We will have tailored approaches to medicine that acknowledge not all patients are the same and not all treatments work for all.
  10. Hundreds of thousands of patients who would have succumbed to cancer will be saved.

Other Dr. Collins highlights include:

  • When asked what he would do if Congress increases funding for the NIH beyond the FY17 request Collins responded, “As you know, a great deal of the research that we support is ideas that come to us from investigators all over the country. It’s their bright brains that push forward the envelope.  And we would want to be sure to do something to encourage even more of those grants to be fundable.”
  • When asked about the impact of a funding cliff if Congress cuts NIH’s budget this year after a $2 billion increase last year. Collins responded, “I painted a pretty gloomy picture, and it was not just because I was feeling gloomy.  It’s because it would be, in fact, devastating.  We would lose 1,000 grants that would otherwise have been spent.”
  • Finally, when asked what the 16-day government shutdown in 2015 did to the NIH, Collins responded emotionally: “I’ve been at the NIH for 23 years.  Those 16 days were just about the darkest that I can recall ever going through.”

Lawmakers also asked questions on zika virus, opioid addiction, the administration’s Cancer “Moonshot,” details on the BRAIN Initiative, sex-balance in pre-clinical research, drug costs, HIV vaccine progress, marijuana policy and legalization, the National Children’s Study, the Precision Medicine Initiative, superbugs, Native American health and inter-departmental collaboration.

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