This week, the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee held an oversight hearing on advances in biomedical research at the National institutes of Health. Witnesses included Francis Collins, director of NIH, as well as directors from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institute of Mental Health, National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
U.S. Rep. Cole, R-Oklah, at the onset expressed concern by the administration’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 and reiterated the importance of investments at the NIH to the nation’s health and prosperity. U.S. Rep DeLauro, D-Conn, followed Cole’s remarks by stating that “there is no defending cutting thousands of research grants… We should be talking about increasing the NIH’s budget by $8 billion not cutting it by $8 billion”. “If a budget is a statement of our values, then this one is a slap in the face to the scientific community and, frankly, to the men women and children depending on research to save and improve their lives,” U.S. Rep. Lowey, D-N.Y., added
Collins outlined opportunities that the NIH is focusing on. These included leveraging basic science for medical advances, pursuing treatments for rare diseases, and advancing cancer immunotherapy. Cole urged Collins to speak about bending the cost curve of disease by investing in biomedical research, ultimately saving billions of dollars
Collins discussed the pitfalls of a “rollercoaster model” of funding and the distress that it creates for up-and-coming investigators. He encouraged the committee to push for a stable and predictable trajectory of research funding to help the NIH plan research and retain investigators.
U.S. Rep. Fleischmann, R-Tenn, brought up concerns over the pipeline of the next generation of medical researchers and the newly proposed and controversial Grant Support Index.
Specifically the congressman questioned:
- if GSI should be implemented at all;
- what follow-up actions the NIH is conducting to ensure that the GSI actually funds and sustains a higher percentage of early-career investigators;
- if the agency is considering steps to ensure that the proposed index doesn’t harm current scientific progress; and
- if the agency is considering mechanisms that might allow exceptions to proposed caps on how many grants an investigator may have.
Collins reiterated his support for the index, citing concerns around providing the highest return on taxpayer dollars and the decrease in productivity when a researcher has more than three grants. He also stated that the agency is taking steps to ensure that the proposed rule has the least amount of impact on the research community and that exceptions are adequately determined. He highlighted that the NIH does not want to penalize investigators who hold awards that result in public service-like running a center or training but the agency does want to implement a policy that helps spread research funding across a larger number of investigators.
U.S. Rep. Clark, D-Mass, stressed the effect of international competition on the recruitment of scientists (conducting research as a consequence of the lack of robust funding on the U.S.’ innovation.) Collins emphasized that China is on course to outpace the U.S. in investments in research by 2021, not only by percent of GDP but by actual dollar amount. NIH funding supports 379,000 jobs directly and 7 million jobs indirectly across the biomedical community. Furthermore, Collins pointed out that for every dollar of taxpayer money invested into research there is a $8.38 return on investment to the economy.
U.S. Rep. Harris, R-Md, questioned why the American taxpayer should be held at a different standard than nonprofits when covering indirect costs given that freeing up funds could support thousands of additional grants at the agency. Indirect costs include anything from support for administrative activities to facility upkeep and maintenance. Harris compared the level of indirect costs received through grants awarded to institutions. Nonprofits fund anywhere from zero to 12 percent, while the NIH provided around 50 percent of funding for indirect cost. These federal dollars account for $6 billion of NIH’s budget. Collins addressed these concerns by maintaining that the NIH does not set the levels for indirect costs. Additionally, if universities were required to cover a higher burden of indirect costs, then they would be unable to support the majority of research labs receiving funding, he said.
With the budget for FY17 complete and FY18 coming down the pipeline, members of the committee frequently harkened to the impact that a huge cut to the NIH’s budget or any disruption to the funding could have on the research community. U.S. Rep. Simpson, R-Idaho, addressed gossip within Congress in support of a government shutdown in September. Collins, recalling the impact that the most recent government shutdown had on the NIH, described it as “probably the darkest hour that I’ve experience since I’ve been NIH director.”
Other topics discussed included drug addiction, mental health, and transferability of medical research. Overall, members of the committee celebrated the bipartisan nature of their work to increase the NIH’s budget in FY17 and congratulating the important activities supported by the NIH. When the FY18 budget rolls out, we will watch for funding to agencies like the NIH and look for bipartisan support in Congress for essential programs.