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Senate and House Pass Respective Budget Resolutions: Senate Passes Specter Amendment to Increase NIH Funding by $1.5 Billion

Legislative Update
March 21, 2005

On March 17, the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled Setting the Path for Reauthorization: Improving Portfolio Management at the National Institutes of Health , which featured NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni. According to Subcommittee chair Cong. Nathan Deal (R-GA), this was the tenth hearing on the NIH in the last two-plus years, and prefaces planned NIH reauthorization activities in the 109 th Congress, which full Committee chair Joe Barton (R-TX) echoed in announcing the planned introduction of bipartisan NIH reauthorization legislation in the next 2-3 months.

In his opening statement, Chairman Barton praised Dr. Zerhouni for "taking on one of the most important and difficult jobs in government." He noted that "the NIH is the premier research organization of its kind in the world" and that "Dr. Zerhouni's absolute determination to make it even better is already paying off," acknowledging NIH's creation of the new Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives (which Dr. Zerhouni announced on March 9 in testimony before the House LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee).

After acknowledging that the NIH has experienced explosive growth and is now comprised of 27 Institutes and Centers, Chairman Barton expressed concern about the efficient and effective use of federal research dollars across the NIH, despite such trans-Institute initiatives as the Roadmap for Medical Research. He identified three priorities in the planned NIH reauthorization legislation:

  • Expand the authority of the NIH Director by enabling the transfer of funds between Institutes and Centers and increases in the Office of the Director to fund more extensive portfolio management projects and cross-cutting initiatives.
  • Better align the budget line items, since the current process by which the Appropriations Committee allocates funding through 26 line items (primarily along Institute and Center designations) may not meet the scientific demands of the NIH.
  • Create a new, more transparent reporting system, potentially tracking research progress in broad areas of interest rather than, for example, specific diseases.

In his testimony, Dr. Zerhouni acknowledged the enormity of the challenges that NIH faces, with respect to its mission and the efficient and effective use of federal research dollars, at a time when: the burden of illness has shifted from acute to chronic diseases as health care costs rise and the population ages; the frontier of biomedical science currently presents unprecedented opportunity; and there is a dearth of reliable, integrated data on which to base priority-setting decisions, including insufficient information on the human and financial cost of disease.

In prefacing his comments on the need for the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, Dr. Zerhouni stated that "what we have is a hand with 27 very strong fingers, but I'm not sure the palm is strong enough to coordinate all that." He commented that the new Office, coupled with trans-Institute activities (such as the Roadmap and the trans-Institute NIH Neuroscience Blueprint) should meet many of the goals stated for the NIH by Chairman Barton, specifically organization, efficiency and transparency. However, when asked specifically whether he thought the reauthorization legislation was necessary, Dr. Zerhouni responded that it would be appropriate if it gave NIH more flexibility to manage its portfolio.