In Senate Hearing, NIH Director Collins Recognizes Importance of Training the Next Generation of Scientists

In Senate Hearing, NIH Director Collins Recognizes Importance of Training the Next Generation of Scientists

Legislative Update
May 18, 2018

On May 17, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD and members of his senior team (see box below) regarding the Administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 NIH budget request. This followed an April 11 hearing of the House LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee with Dr. Collins.

In his Opening Statement, Senate Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) commented that:

“My support for medical research is clear. During my time as Chairman of the
Subcommittee, I am proud to have increased NIH funding by 23 percent, or $7 billion, in the last three years. This investment nearly tripled funding for Alzheimer’s research, started the Precision Medicine Initiative, and targeted resources to such
revolutionary projects as the BRAIN Initiative, a universal flu vaccine, and efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.”

He then described several examples of how NIH-funded research has raised life expectancy and vastly improved the quality of life, including citing a February 2018 National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report that showed that NIH funding contributed to every one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2010-2016.

While Chairman Blunt focused on the NIH funding accomplishments, in her Opening Statement Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) criticized the Trump Administration’s FY2019 proposed budget for the NIH, which would fund it at a level $100 million below that enacted by Congress for FY2017. While recognizing that the FY2019 Trump proposal would not reduce reimbursement for Facilities and Administrative (indirect) costs in NIH grants, it would reduce the Extramural Salary Cap for researchers from Executive Level (EL) II ($189,600) to EL V ($153,800, expressed in FY2018 dollars), which was also proposed in FY2018 and rejected by Congress in the final funding omnibus.

In his prepared testimony, Dr. Collins thanked Congress for its support during this time of unprecedented scientific opportunity, stating that, “You have gone above and beyond in your support, and I have confidence in a strong path for the future.” He then acknowledged how important that funding is for early-stage investigators, while showing images of Subcommittee members young investigators in laboratories at academic institutions in their states. In describing the five keys to success in science today—as he did at the House hearing—he listed a Stable Trajectory of Support as the first, again commending Congress for recent funding increases. The remaining keys included:

  • Vibrant Biomedical Research Workforce—also made possible by funding increases;
  • Computational Power—as evidenced by the current enrollment of 1 million individuals in the All of Us biomedical data resource cohort within the Precision Medicine Initiative;
  • New Technologies and Facilities—such as gene therapy and immunotherapy; and
  • Scientific Inspiration—in Dr. Collins words, “innovative ideas about which he could speak all day.” He provided a specific example of the recent gene therapy administered to 15 babies to treat Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a disease in which a baby usually dies by 15 months. He showed images of a recipient fully functional, exhibiting none of the symptoms of “floppy baby” syndrome.

In the two rounds of questions from Subcommittee members, most related to the Opioid Crisis—for which NIH receives special funding of $500 million in each FY2018 and FY2019—and vaccines for Zika and Ebola in light of the occurrence of Ebola in the Congo. In responding to member questions about why the majority of drug therapies to treat opioids are also opioids, he announced that the prior day the FDA approved the non-opioid lofexidine hydrochloride for the mitigation of withdrawal symptoms to facilitate abrupt discontinuation of opioids in adults. He acknowledged that this drug emerged from research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry.

The Subcommittee has a June 1 due date for written Outside Witness Testimony, which NAEVR will submit.

The following Institute Directors joined Dr. Collins in responding to questions:

  • Anthony Fauci, MD (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
  • Richard Hodes, MD (National Institute on Aging)
  • Walter Koroshetz, MD (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
  • Norman Sharpless, MD (National Cancer Institute)
  • Nora Volkow, MD (National Institute on Drug Abuse)