Senate Hearing Focuses on Research Opportunities,
Plight of Young Investigators
October 9, 2015
On October 7, as AEVR was hosting Emerging Vision Scientists on Capitol Hill, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. and several Institute Directors (see box below). Dr. Collins last appeared before the Subcommittee on April 30, prior to its development of a Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 LHHS bill which was approved on June 25 by the Senate Appropriations Committee and that funds the NIH at $32.08 billion, a $2 billion or 5.6 percent NIH increase over FY2015 funding and the largest increase the NIH has received since the doubling ended in FY2003. The Senate bill’s NIH funding is $1 billion greater than that proposed in each the President’s budget and the House FY2016 LHHS funding bill.
NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
In his opening statement, Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) acknowledged the Subcommittee’s bipartisan support for the NIH and announced that the witnesses were chosen to discuss key programs that would be started or expanded with the Senate’s proposed funding increase, including the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies (BRAIN) Initiative, and research into cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. He also expressed his concern for young investigators and the challenges they face in the tight funding environment.
Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)
In her opening statement, Ranking Member Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) emphasized the importance of NIH-funded research in driving job creation in her state, specifically “research that uses precision medicine to tackle vision disorders and Alzheimer’s”—similar to comments that she made about vision research at the September 16 Rally for Medical Research Advocacy Day Congressional reception. In her first question, she asked about the impact of a full-year Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the NIH at the FY2015 level if Congress does not finalize FY2016 appropriations. Dr. Collins described it as “devastating to the NIH, putting the PMI into mothballs when it is on the verge of enrolling the million-person cohort, as well as requiring the BI to take a pause.” Regarding the latter, he noted that, on October 1, the NIH announced the second round of BI awards, totaling $38 million, bringing to-date BI funding to $85 million.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)
In her opening statement, Subcommittee member and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) commented that the NIH should be seen as an economic generator and not an economic cost.” In his statement, Democratic Whip, NIH Senate Caucus Co-Chair, and Subcommittee member Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) observed that the Members attending the hearing represented the 10-12 lead Senate appropriators and authorizers “who could take a bipartisan stand on NIH funding and could change the future of biomedical research”—and he challenged them to do so.
During NAEVR’s October 8 Emerging Vision Scientists Advocacy Day, Robert Wojciechowski, O.D., Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University) met with Amanda Shelton from Senator Mikulski’s office in a lengthy meeting in which he summarized the latest in vision research
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) focused his statement on the concerns that he is hearing from young investigators from the Oregon Health & Science University. When asked by the Senator if he is hearing those same concerns, Dr. Collins, who testified earlier this year that “it is the worst time ever for young investigators,” responded that, “yes, we should be deeply concerned. NIH has invested significant resources into training these young investigators. In the past, when I visited with them, they used to talk about their science. Now they are more concerned with their career path.” When asked what is necessary to adequately support these emerging scientists, Dr. Collins responded that, “there is no magic here other than alleviating the budget squeeze.”
On October 8, Shandiz Tehrani, M.D., Ph.D. (Oregon Health & Science University/Casey Eye Institute) met with Senator Merkley in the morning, then with his staff later that day.
Subcommittee member and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) noted his efforts with Committee Ranking Member Ms. Murray to develop a bill investing in science and medical innovation—which is essentially the Senate version of the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee’s 21st Century Cures Act. As in the Senate HELP Committee’s April 28 hearing with Dr. Collins, Chairman Alexander emphasized his desire to lessen the administrative burdens for researchers at the NIH. He also asked Dr. Collins a series of questions-for which he asked for responses post-hearing-relating to mandatory funding, which is included in the House 21st Century Cures Act bill and funds a new NIH Innovation fund at $1.75 billion per-year for the next five fiscal years (2016-2020) with mandatory funding. His questions included those that asked how NIH would mix discretionary and mandatory funding, whether mandatory funding should be targeted to special programs (e.g. PMI, young investigators), and whether NIH would experience “falling off a cliff” at the end of the five years of funding.
NIH Institute Directors accompanying Dr. Collins included:
Douglas Lowy, M.D., Acting Director,
National Cancer Institute
Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D., Director,
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., Director,
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D., Director,
National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Nora D. Volkow, M.D.,
Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse