Funding Constraints Highlighted at House Appropriations Hearings on FY 2016 NIH Request

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Publication date: 
11 March 2015

A common theme at last week’s House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the National Institutes of Health was the impact that funding constraints have had on medical research.  Although the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), one of 27 institutes and centers, was not specifically mentioned, the issue of overall funding for NIH was raised early and often during the two-hour hearing.

The Obama Administration requested a $1 billion, or 3.3 percent increase in NIH’s total budget, from $30,311.4 million to $31,311.4 million.  NIBIB funding would increase 3.1 percent. 

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) raised funding early in his opening remarks, telling NIH Director Francis Collins and the directors of five institutes:  “Of course, we all support biomedical research. Unfortunately right now, sequesters is the law of the land and given the reality of funding allocations, we might not be able to do everything that the Administration is proposing absent a larger bipartisan budget agreement, one quite frankly that I hope we achieve.  I look forward to having a discussion with you this morning on your top priorities for this year given our funding constraint.”

Cole continued, raising another concern that was mentioned several times during this hearing:  “I would also be remiss if I did not point out how important it is to ensure that we continue to focus on the next generation of investigators. We know how long it takes for a new drug or treatment to make it from lab to the patient. So without a pipeline of young researchers committed to following the scientific process of investigation and experimentation, we won't be able to find the cures we seek.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Rose DeLauro (D-CT) described the impacts that funding constraints have had on NIH in her opening remarks.  She explained that after adjusting for inflation NIH funding has seen its budget erode by approximately $3.6 billion, or 11 percent, since FY 2010.  “In 2015, NIH will fund almost 1,000 fewer research projects than it did in 2010. We will never know how many scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs the world may have missed out on because of these budget restraints. That is the disturbing context in which we consider the NIH budget request for fiscal year 2016,” she told her colleagues.  The Administration’s FY 2016 request would restore less than one-third of the decline there has been since FY 2010.  Ten years ago NIH funded one if three applications for research grants, a success rate that has fallen to one in six.  DeLauro mentioned, as did several other members, the significant impact of NIH discoveries on the American economy.

Midway through the hearing Cole spoke of the lack of research grant opportunities for young scientists.  Collins replied “This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States. We have such amazing scientific opportunities. . . .  our most critical resource is not, you know, pieces of equipment or buildings, it's the people and particularly, this next generation of researchers.  They are full of ideas and vision and yet they are finding themselves facing a situation that is the least supportive for that vision in 50 years.”  Collins continued “there's no real magic here to solving what is a very difficult equation of supply and demand, where the demand for resources to do research is not currently being matched by the supply. But we are trying to adjust many of the things that we can adjust.”  NIH has initiated several programs to offer greater support to young scientists he said. 

The tone of the hearing was bipartisan, a point emphasized by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) when he said “The bipartisan nature of this subject with this committee is pretty obvious and has been in the past and that's good. It would be, I think, the desire of everyone on this committee to substantially increase the research we're doing if we didn't have an $18 trillion deficit and or debt and $500 billion deficit that we're having to deal with at the same time, which makes it more difficult. But still, it's something that we put priority on and try to do in a bipartisan manner.”

Toward the conclusion of the hearing Collins cited a study indicating that the United States could, in the next decade, lose its historical international lead in biomedical research.  Referring to comments made by several appropriators about doubling NIH’s budget as had been done in the past, Collins declared:

“We can turn this around. What NIH desperately needs and what would be such an inspirational moment for our community, especially those early stage investigators we were talking about, is a sense of stable trajectory that we have the chance to be able to plan, to take risks, to do innovative research without the uncertainty about what will happen one year or the next.  Maybe a doubling would be actually a nice thing but what would be even better would be an opportunity to see a path forward that keeps up with inflation plus a little bit and that we could count on and that people could basically then flex their innovative muscles and take advantage of this amazing talent that we have in this country.”

The subcommittee will struggle to provide the $1 billion increase the Administration has requested for NIH. Funding for all discretionary programs is tight, and will become even more constrained if Congress cannot find a way to achieve the “larger bipartisan budget agreement” that Chairman Cole spoke of in his opening remarks.

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call