Senate Appropriators Reject NIH Cuts, Delve into Research Policy

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Publication date: 
29 June 2017

At a hearing on the National Institutes of Health budget request, senators firmly rejected President Trump’s proposal to slash biomedical research funding and pressed NIH Director Francis Collins on the proposed 10 percent cap on facilities and administration cost reimbursements.

At a June 22 hearing, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who chairs the Senate subcommittee responsible for the National Institutes of Health budget, told NIH Director Francis Collins he could “rest assured” that the subcommittee would not implement President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request. Blunt said that he finds the request's call for a 22 percent cut in funding to NIH “unacceptable,” and boasted that Congress had increased NIH funding by 13 percent over the past two years. He cautioned, though, that such increases are unlikely to recur this year.  

Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) reinforced Blunt, calling the proposed cuts “deeply concerning” and pointing out the budget request would have “severe consequences for thousands of research facilities and tens of thousands of scientists that rely on [NIH] grants.” Murray observed the proposed NIH topline would result in the lowest level of federal funding for biomedical research since 2002.

As the hearing continued, the senators took ample time to delve into NIH’s research policies and federal research policy more broadly. Committee members in particular showed no love for the administration’s proposed 10 percent cap on research facilities and administrative cost reimbursements, an idea facing strong opposition from national university associations. Senators also pressed Collins and the six NIH institute directors in attendance with questions about the role of federal research funding in spurring innovation; the value of private-public research partnerships; and how to reduce administrative burden on researchers and research institutions.

Senators question ‘hare-brained’ overhead cap

One of the most pointed lines of the senators’ questioning was on the consequences of the administration’s proposal to cap the reimbursement rate for research facilities and administration costs (also known as indirect costs) at 10 percent.

NIH awards universities and other institutions that host researchers an average rate of 28 percent of total grant funds in order to cover institutions’ indirect costs, a category which includes construction and maintenance of facilities, major equipment, utilities, libraries, and administrative support. The proposed cuts to NIH fall almost entirely on these facilities and administration reimbursements, while direct research spending – which includes researcher salaries, smaller-scale equipment and supplies, and research-related travel – is largely spared.

Murray conveyed to Collins that “there’s tremendous concern among the research community about President Trump’s proposal to cap indirect costs,” and asked how Collins is addressing the cap proposal. In response, Collins affirmed that facilities and administrative reimbursements are necessary for institutions to be able to conduct research, and warned the cap would also hit NIH’s intramural programs, which comprise 11 percent of the agency’s overall budget. Collins said,

For that intramural program, there would be no other potential source of funds. It would make it rather hard for me or anyone at this table … to imagine what we would do … given that we have the buildings and the electric power and so on. ... I am having a hard time imagining how we would manage that.

He added that he is working to find ways NIH and its grantee institutions may be able to absorb the fiscal impact of such a cap, including through the reduction in reporting and other administrative requirements. But he also acknowledged that such efforts “would not add up to an enormous difference in what we’re currently asking our grantee institutions to do.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called the proposed cap on indirect costs “one of the more hare-brained recommendations in the budget.” He recalled that a cap was first proposed during the Reagan administration when he was serving as education secretary, and said it was rejected then because it became clear that the net effect of the cap would be less research.

University groups have actively lobbied against the proposed cap since it was first announced in February. They warn that if facilities and administrative reimbursements to universities are slashed, they will have no choice but to raise tuition or withdraw entirely as research partners with the federal government.

In his effort to “nip this idea in the bud,” Alexander asked Collins to keep Congress in the loop on any reporting with respect to the proposed cap, as he plans to organize a bipartisan group of senators to push back against the proposal. He then asked Collins to seek out specific information about the impact of the cap on university funding and research capacity. He concluded,

It is a thoroughly awful idea, bad policy. It would not do what I know the president wants to do, which is to create more American jobs, not fewer, more research, not less. And this policy would be less.

Reducing administrative burden a priority

Alexander suggested that if the administration is looking for ways to cut costs, it should instead address the administrative burden of research, saying,

The National Academies has done two reports. It says more than 40 percent of researchers’ time is spend on administrative tasks. My guess is most of those come from the Office of Management and Budget, too. So if you want to reduce some of those administrative tasks and free up more money for research grants, that would be a good area to work on.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) further pressed the issue, saying paperwork is “not helping us get to greater discovery.”

Collins responded that NIH is “very intensely” looking at ways to reduce administrative burden, but cautioned that certain administrative tasks are still critical to the research process:

Senator Alexander already mentioned this 42 percent number that came out of the National Academy study. I should point out that 22 percent of that may be the part that we really want the investigators to do because that’s the writing the grant proposal and making sure they’ve got great science ideas.

He indicated the categories of administrative burden they are looking to reduce are related more to effort reporting and oversight of conflict of interest. NIH has “some levers that we can pull…to reduce some of those things,” said Collins, but he also cautioned that “some of those levers we don’t hold and that would require other discussions.

Collins: Federal and private research are complementary

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) inquired about the relationship between federally sponsored biomedical research and private sector research in the field. He started his questioning by asking Collins for a sense of the federal share. Collins responded that the private sector outspends federal biomedical research “by a factor of two, or maybe a little bit more than two,” at a level of about $100 billion per year.

Pressed by Shelby on whether federal research is coordinated or otherwise complementary with private research, Collins stressed that it has been a personal priority of his “to try to identify ways that we could avoid the overlaps but also encourage the appropriate collaborative projects.” Collins pointed to the NIH’s Accelerating Medicines Partnership that brings together scientists and other leaders in the public sectors with those in the private, including the heads of major R&D and pharmaceutical companies.

We get around the table and say what are the needs that neither of us [in the private sector] can do ourselves that would speed up getting treatments to patients,” Collins explained, adding that the approach is leading to hundreds of millions of dollars going into NIH projects focused on major diseases and conditions.

Alexander was intent on making the broader point that the private sector and the nation broadly benefit from federal research spending. He pointed to the “complexes of industry” that grow around universities and create jobs, a point on which Collins concurred.

A longtime proponent of the federal role in research, Alexander captured the bipartisan sentiment of the committee members in favor of sustaining NIH funding. He reminded the panel,

There’s very little that’s happened in terms of technological change in our country since World War II that hasn’t had some government research as a part of it. We’re obviously leading the world in biomedical research and we want to accelerate it, not slow it down.

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