This week, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies subcommittee held a budget request hearing for the National institutes of Health for fiscal 2018. Witnesses included Francis Collins, director of NIH, as well as directors from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Aging, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Began the hearing by saying that the committee finds proposed FY18 budget released by President Donald Trump’s administration to be unacceptable. “These cuts have the potential to cost 90,000 jobs nationwide and result in $15.3 billion in lost economic activity” Blunt said, adding that “the cut is one that I think you can rest assured that this committee will not take.” He mentioned that while former President Barack Obama proposed a $1 billion cut, the committee pushed forward with a $3 billion increase from the amount proposed in the former president’s budget though the committee isn’t likely to provide the same increase for FY18. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. added that “you can’t have ups and downs based on the whims of anti-science groups. That hurts the medical research field.”
Collins expressed gratitude for the committee’s commitment to the NIH. Collins highlighted research activities at the agency as well as the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. brought up the concerns of her constituents about the proposed 10 percent cap on indirect costs proposed in the budget. .
Collins said that the NIH is working to identify ways to relieve administrative burden, which might reduce these costs, but he said that it may not save enough money. Douglas Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute, stopped short of making concrete assertions of what a 10 percent cap would have on institutions but instead highlighted the breakthrough research that grant funding produces and how a cap would impact productivity.
U.S. Sen. Durbin, D-Ill. asked Collins about the relationship of NIH-funded research to drug production. Durbin stated, “I think it’s time the American people came to hear the National Institutes of Health being referred to on a regular basis as part of the sourcing of the great things that are happening.” He added, “We pass laws about the labels under my suit and the labels on products… and I’d like to ask the chairman and others to think about joining me in a bipartisan effort to make sure credit is given where its due so that Americans come to appreciate how you are at the heart of basic research that really makes their lives an awful lot better.”
U.S. Sen. Moran, R-Kan. noted that some institutions tie salaries to grants, with some researchers receiving 80 percent of their salaries from grants. In his view, institutions should be supporting their researchers more, and grants should support the research. Collins noted that the NIH does cap salary support, but that the agency has not pushed to reduce the caps. He also pointed out that NIH grants cover the salaries of other research personnel, such as postdocs and lab techs. He said those salaries account for up to 40 percent of NIH grant funding but that these are essential investments that need to continue.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. questioned the motivations of the Trump administration’s cuts when it has been clear that the president’s intention is to keep more American jobs in the United States. After all, decreasing investments in research is likely to drive scientists out of the country and, subsequently industries will be created abroad instead of here.
Collins pointed out that China in 2000 spent only 12 percent of what the U.S. did on biomedical research. In 2015, however, that investment increased to 75 percent. It appears that China is on track to surpass U.S. in the next four to five years.
Alexander asked for Congress to be involved in any report submitted to the administration and Department of Health and Human Services on indirect costs coverage occurs and to include anecdotes from institutions that would be heavily impacted. He added that he hoped that the debate over indirect cost could be nipped in the bud and mentioned that what is a “thoroughly awful idea.” He said the Trump administration, if it wants to look for cost savings, should focus on administrative burden.
U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. seconded looking at administrative burden to reduce costs and reallocate funds to cover more researchers. Lankford also spoke about duplicating research between other federal agencies. Collins responded that, while there is some necessary overlap, there is good collaboration between agencies and a fair number of analytics to assess where researchers might be trying to shop research projects at agencies with different missions.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. wanted to know if the taxpayers or the NIH could get royalties resulting from successfully vaccines and drugs. According to Collins, discoveries made intramurally bring in $90 million each year, but he did not provide particulars on what happens to those recovered funds.
Additional discussions covered research progress on precision medicine, opioid addiction, mental health, diabetes and Alzheimer research. The president’s budget includes a large cut to the NIH in FY18, which would reverse the agency’s growth to a 17-year low. Both the chairman, Blunt, and ranking member, Murray, rejected the administration’s proposal and said they look forward to supporting the NIH during the continuing appropriation process.