Senate appropriators show bipartisan support for biomedical research
The percentage of grant applications funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could fall to the lowest level in history this year, the agency’s director, Francis Collins, told a panel of Senate appropriators earlier this month as he made the case for increased resources in the fiscal year 2012 budget.
Collins was joined by National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus and other institute directors as he testified before the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Services, which oversees the NIH budget.
Collins acknowledged that the NIH was spared drastic cuts in the recently enacted FY2011 spending bill, which made significant reductions to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health-related services, but he warned that the 1 percent, $322 million cut the agency did receive was a step in the wrong direction and it will have harmful consequences for the research enterprise.
Longtime advocate for health research, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the subcommittee, lamented the “dismal downturn” NIH has experienced in federal support since he worked to double the budget in the nineties. While Congress has a moral imperative to fund medical research, Harkin said it also has economic incentive. Citing data from a recent study by United for Medical Research, which found that NIH investment supported nearly half a million jobs in 2010, and another study by Battelle, which found that federal investment in the Human Genome Project from 1988 to 2003 has helped to drive an economic impact of $796 billion, he said NIH is one of the best investments the nation can make.
The NIH proposal to establish a National Center for the Advancement of Translational Science (NCATS), charged with helping to speed promising discoveries through the drug development pipeline to bridge research and industry, came under question by the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
The new center, which NIH hopes to open by October of this year, will involve the controversial move to dismantle another NIH center, the National Center for Research Resources, and will rearrange some research programs. The speed with which Collins is pursuing the establishment of NCATS has been criticized and many have questioned whether it is appropriate for NIH to play a role in drug development.
While recognizing that investment in translational research is a priority, Shelby hit upon these concerns and wondered whether NCATS was the right approach.
Collins assured the subcommittee that NCATS will complement, not compete with, the private sector and that he believes it is the best way to move science forward. Collins also told legislators that budgetary details about the center will be provided in the coming weeks.
Varmus was asked by Harkin during the hearing why the public hasn’t seen more breakthroughs in targeted therapies like the cancer treatment Gleevec, which was approved in 2001 by Food and Drug Administration. Varmus responded that many promising therapies are in development and that he is optimistic about a number of cancer drugs in the pipeline.
Overall, Republican and Democratic appropriators on the panel were receptive and sympathetic to the agency's fiscal challenges. However, even with this strong show of support, mounting competition for limited dollars means that NIH and the research community will have to fight hard to convince lawmakers to spare biomedical research from budget cuts in the FY2012 budget. Under a budget plan recently released by House leaders, for instance, all non-defense discretionary funding is subject to severe cuts.
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