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Congress Focuses on Budget and Appropriations Before Spring Recess; FY2009 NIH/NEI Funding Issues Highlighted in Legislation and Testimony

Legislative Update
March 17, 2008

Last week, Congress was busy on Capitol Hill with respect to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 budget and appropriations before it recessed for the Spring district work period. Below is a summary of activities, especially in relation to National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eye Institute (NEI) funding.

FY2009 Budget Resolution and Specter Amendment to Increase NIH Funding

On Thursday, March 13, the House passed its version of the $3 trillion Budget Resolution by a vote of 212-207. The Senate passed its version late that day by a vote of 51-44 after rejecting an attempt to impose a year-long moratorium on earmarks. Earlier, the Senate overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 95-4 Senate Amendment 4203, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the respective Ranking Member and Chair of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee. The amendment, co-sponsored by 29 bipartisan members, would add $2.1 billion for NIH funding. The Budget Resolution had recommended $30 billion in NIH funding for FY2009, which is $950 million over the FY2008 appropriation. This $2.1 billion amendment, along with the $950 million already contained in the resolution, would provide NIH with an increase of $3 billion or 10.3 percent over the FY2008 appropriation. In a comprehensive statement submitted for the record, Sen. Specter detailed lost opportunities at NIH due to flat funding, which included NEIís inability to fund several clinical studies in minority populations, including Asian Americans and Native Americans.

The vision community advocated extensively for the Senate amendment, including more than 50 Senate office visits the previous week by the American Glaucoma Society (AGS) in its first-ever Advocacy Day on March 6, which was also the first-ever World Glaucoma Day. The AGS used NAEVRís position paper and talking points in requesting the NIH increase.

NEIís AMD Research Lauded in Citizen Witness Testimony at House Hearing

On March 13, the House LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee held a Citizen Witness hearing, following up on its March 5 hearing with NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni and heads of several Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) agencies. Although the vision community was not selected to testify (since it was represented in last yearís hearing), the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biologyís (FASEB) President Robert Palazzo, Ph.D. testified and lauded NEIís research into age-related macular degeneration (AMD) when discussing how investment in NIH brings hope and treatments on the horizon. Dr. Palazzo also spoke extensively about how flat funding threatens an entire generation of young researchers and jeopardizes the hope of patients who desperately need treatments and therapies arising from NIH-funded research.

As that testimony was being delivered, the vision community joined its advocacy colleagues in urging members of the House to sign onto a bipartisan letter championed by Cong. Ed Markey (D-MA) and others urging adequate support for the NIH.

Press Event and Senate HELP Hearing Focus on Impact on Young Investigators

On March 12, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, with authorization jurisdiction over the NIH, held a hearing on the impact of flat NIH funding on young scientists. The hearing followed a press event at which a group of university leaders, headed by Harvard University President Drew Faust, Ph.D., released a report on the harmful effects of flat NIH funding on retaining the next generation of biomedical scientists and researchers.

A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk was released with comments by Dr. Faust, Ohio State University Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut, J.D., and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine Dean Robert Golden, M.D. Two young investigators from Vanderbilt University and UCLA, as well as a cancer survivor from Georgia, spoke. The group discussed how the flat NIH budget has increased competition for grants to the point that the average age for a researcher receiving a first grant is 43 and that many young investigators are being discouraged from careers in biomedical research. The competition also has prompted investigators to submit proposals that are safer and less innovative, said Dr. Golden, perhaps slowing the pace of scientific discovery. The report was sponsored by Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners HealthCare, the University of California-Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University. It follows up on a similar report published in 2007 entitled Within our Grasp or Slipping Away? that was prepared by a slightly different group of institutions and focused on how the slowdown in NIH funding was harming the chances for important breakthroughs in medical research and therapies.

The Senate HELP hearing on the issue also featured Dr. Faust and Edward Miller, M.D., Dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.