American Association for Cancer Research

AACR Cancer Policy Monitor

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                                                                                                  FEBRUARY 2011

VARMUS TELLS NCI ADVISORY BOARD TO BRACE FOR BUDGET CUTS

Director also addresses criticism about NIH translational center and offers details about bypass budget

Flat funding and the potential for further cuts in federal research funding have cast a cloud of uncertainty over operations at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

While addressing the NCI National Cancer Advisory Board on Feb. 8, the institute’s director, Harold Varmus, told board members to brace for cuts to NCI programs. Varmus disclosed that he is “unabashedly” considering reductions to budget items including cancer center awards, contracts and inflationary increases for non-competitive awards in order to protect other key areas.

NCI’s predicament stems from the fact that it is currently operating under fiscal year 2010 funding levels, as Congress has yet to finalize funding levels for the 2011 fiscal year, which officially began on Oct. 1, 2010. The continuing resolution, a stopgap measure that is keeping most government agencies and programs running, will expire on March 4, at which point Congress may enact budget cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year. The outlook for cancer research in FY2012 is no more promising, although the president did propose a small budgetary increase for NIH in the FY2012 budget proposal.

Under this strained budget environment, Varmus indicated that his top priorities will be to sustain the same number of new grant awards in FY2011 as was awarded in each of the past two years, to ensure cancer genomics programs are supported, and to pay for the ongoing improvements to the clinical trials program.

Bypass Budget

While it is still forthcoming, Varmus gave a broad overview of the NCI’s annual plan and budget proposal, commonly referred to as the “bypass budget,” for fiscal year 2012. The document will recommend that the administration and Congress boost the institute’s budget by 15 percent over current levels. To demonstrate the worth of federal investment, the report will feature six specific cancers—melanoma, glioblastoma, ovarian, lung, neuroblastoma and acute myeloid leukemia—that the NCI believes best illustrate important recent gains in the fight against cancer made possible with public support.

Conceding that the report is unlikely to alter the funding environment in any significant way, Varmus noted that it will still be an important tool for educating the public and engaging support for cancer research.

Controversy over Proposed Translational Research Center

During the meeting, Varmus also made an effort to dispel any confusion about the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposal to establish a translational research center. The plan has been under criticism, in part as the result of an article published in The New York Times that characterized the proposed entity as the “government’s new drug center.”

With apparent frustration, Varmus told board members that the article misrepresented the center’s purpose, which will be to facilitate translational research across the NIH and to complement translational research already being conducted and supported in the individual NIH institutes and centers. He offered assurances that funding to support the center would not be siphoned from other institutes and that no portion of NCI would be transferred.

The next meeting of the NCAB is scheduled for June 27-29, 2011.

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