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Chairman Harkin and Dr. Collins Describe “Perilous” and “Pivotal” Moments for NIH in Senate Hearing

Legislative Update
May 15, 2013

Today, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing entitled NIH: Exceptional Opportunities in 2014 with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. and several Institute/Center Directors. In his opening statement, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that it currently is a “perilous” moment for the NIH and U.S. biomedical research leadership due to final Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 funding, which has resulted in: a $1.7 billion NIH budget cut as a result of the sequester; a projected success rate of 16 percent-the lowest ever in NIH history; and 700 fewer competing grants than in FY2012. He stated that, although he wants to do everything he can to boost NIH funding in his chamber, the House leadership still supports the sequester and its deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, which includes the NIH. As a result, he is concerned about “pitting NIH against other worthwhile programs in the LHHS bill, such as CDC,” which he will not do.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) said that now is not the time for Congress to waiver on its commitment to the NIH, especially since China has pledged a 26 percent increase in its biomedical research spending. “The NIH is the catalyst behind Americans living longer and having healthy lives,” he said, adding that “one of the NIH’s most significant contributions is reducing the cost of disease, especially for the aging population.”

In her opening statement, Subcommittee member and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stated that she is proud to have the NIH located in her state. She cited the deleterious effect of the sequester on jobs, the economy, and growth, and repeated her intent to cancel it moving forward, voiced initially at a February 14, 2013, hearing of the full Committee on the sequester’s potential impact.

In his testimony, Dr. Collins acknowledged that NIH has lost 22 percent of its purchasing power over the past ten years and could lose up to $19 billion over the next ten years if sequester cuts continue. He described recent developments in cancer research, embryonic stem cells, and the BRAIN Initiative as providing a “pivotal” moment in biomedical research, but lamented the paradox that this time of great scientific leadership is concurrent with a “dwindling” of funding support. As in past testimony, he cited the projected double-digit growth in biomedical research funding planned in China, India, South Korea, Japan and even budget-challenged Germany, noting that only the U.S. and France projected reductions in research funding. He ended his formal comments by reading an email from a young investigator that he trained stating that “I can’t erase the fear that this [difficulty in getting funded] is my future.”

One of the major topics during the question and answer period was the new BRAIN Initiative, to which NIH has pledged $40 million in funding in FY2014 (primarily from the existing Neuroscience Blueprint Initiative). Although Dr. Collins noted that NIH had not yet detailed the out-year budget commitments for this program, NIH’s Working Group would develop a more specific plan in the coming year. Dr. Collins was joined by Story Landis, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in describing the many benefits which could emerge from researching brain circuitry. “By understanding how the circuits that control movement, vision and hearing work, we will better understand the development of neurodegenerative diseases and how to potentially treat them,” said Dr. Landis.

On April 30, NAEVR submitted written comments to the Senate LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee requesting that it improve on the President’s FY2014 budget proposal which had no growth in the National Eye Institute (NEI) budget.