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Dr. Collins Testifies Before Congressional Authorizers Citing Potential Impact of Sequestration

Legislative Update
June 22, 2012

On June 21, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. testified before the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee, which has authorizing oversight of NIH. Per the hearing notice, its intent was to review the implementation of the NIH Reform Act of 2006, the progress of National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) implementation, and determination of NIH funding and research priorities.

In his opening statement, E&C Subcommittee on Health Chair Joseph Pitts (R-PA) primarily addressed the latter, specifically how NIH identifies priorities and uses the review process to fund the best research. Although he was not in attendance, E&C Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-NY) also emphasized the priority-setting process. Both lauded NIH’s efforts in improving the quality of life, as did Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ). The latter two expressed concern about the potential impact of mandatory cuts on the NIH, with Cong. Waxman commenting that “asking NIH to make cuts associated with sequestration was an unfair request.” When asked by both about this issue, Dr. Collins responded that “no disease research would come out unscathed,” adding that he would be forced to “spread the pain” across all disciplines. Dr. Collins added that if the sequester were to take effect, the NIH would be forced to award 2,300 fewer grants, driving success rates to an historic low.

In his testimony, Dr. Collins characterized the value of NIH investment in innovation through the four “Ts”-technology, translation, talent, and taxpayer return on investment. He also addressed specific actions NIH has taken per the legislative requirements in the 2006 reauthorization, citing the active role of the Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) in making recommendations about NIH structure and management, including the creation of NCATS, as well as the creation of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI) and its role in portfolio review and management of the NIH Common Fund.

Questions ranged from overall NIH management issues (peer review process, proposed dissolution of the separate Institutes for Drug and Alcohol Abuse and creation of a new “Addiction” Institute), as well as those related to individual Member interests (asthma, pancreatic cancer, intellectual property rights, competitiveness with China). Issues of greatest concern to NAEVR include the following:

  • Though Dr. Collins provided an extensive answer about how the peer review process worked, Chairman Pitts requested that NIH staff meet with Subcommittee staff to further discuss.
  • E&C Chairman Emeritus Joe Barton (R-TX), who oversaw the 2006 reauthorization which was for a period of three years, noted that NIH was up for reauthorization. Although he noted that his list of issues for the next reauthorization was much shorter than in the past process, he asked a number of questions about Title 42, which is the flexible authority used by the NIH to hire intramural employees outside of the normal government salary scale. Dr. Collins stated that of the 19,000 employees at NIH, 24.8 percent were hired under Title 42, and that NIH had recently worked within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to institute a new policy under which only doctorate level hires could use Title 42. Cong. Barton stated that he planned to introduce legislation to reform Title 42 and wanted to work with NIH on it.
  • Cong Cassidy (R-LA) questioned Dr. Collins on how NIH funds diseases relative to the burden of disease. Dr. Collins responded how DPCPSI was established in the last reauthorization to better coordinate NIH’s research portfolio with public health needs and scientific opportunity. Due to time constraints, the Congressman requested that NIH respond more fully to the hearing file.
  • Cong. Murphy (R-PA) asked Dr. Collins to comment on the difference between indirect cost rates in academia and those in non-profit foundations supporting research. Due to time constraints, Dr. Collins could only answer that “NIH does not set indirect cost rates” and was cut off, likely responding more fully to the hearing file.
The same day as the hearing, Fareed Zakaria authored an OpEd in The Washington Post entitled How Government Funding of Science Rewards U.S. Taxpayers in which he commented that, “the one area where the United States can still move from strength to strength is science and technology—if we make the right decisions.”