In Senate Hearing, NIH Director Tabak States that Proposed Cuts to NIH Funding Would Have ‘Chilling’ Effect on Science

On May 4, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Acting Director Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, regarding the Administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 NIH budget request.  Dr. Tabak was accompanied by several members of his senior team (see box below).

Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) stated that as the granddaughter of an NIH-funded scientist, she is very aware of the important role that the basic science supported by the NIH plays in developing new treatments and therapies. She noted that the debt-limit bill passed by the House the previous week would result in drastic cuts to all non-defense discretionary programs, including a cut of $10 billion, or 22% from the NIH. Cuts of that magnitude, she noted, would result in about 5000 fewer grants being awarded to researchers, and the closure of hundreds of individual labs, which would mean fewer new drugs and treatments being developed.   In addition, she said, it would weaken US competitiveness, especially in regard to China. While she was happy to see that the administration’s proposed budget does increase funding for some NIH programs, such as the Cancer Moonshot, she was disappointed that many other NIH Institutes were recommended for flat-funding, or even cuts to their budget.

In her opening statement, Ranking Member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) noted that support for the NIH has traditionally been both bi-cameral and bi-partisan, highlighting several areas where NIH research directly helps address medical issues facing her home state.  While she was glad to see the increased cancer research funding, she was disappointed that funding for Alzheimer’s research was not increased. She stated that investment in biomedical research remains important even in a period of tight federal budgets.

In his opening statement, Dr. Tabak thanked the Committee for its past support of the NIH, highlighting the key role that the basic science funded by the NIH, sometimes not well-understood by the public, has resulted in many important advances in medical care. In his written statement submitted to the subcommittee, he  highlighted  several key initiatives that the NIH is emphasizing for FY2024. Among these are the Reignited Cancer Moonshot, which will receive an additional $500 million in funding, an increased focus on substance use disorders, revolutionizing mental health using Precision Medicine, reducing health disparities and inequities in research, and the development of a universal Influenza vaccine.

In her questioning of Dr. Tabak, Senator Baldwin asked that he elaborate on the impact that the House’s proposed cuts would have on the NIH.  He responded strongly that if the cuts to the NIH were implemented, the effect on the NIH and the research it funds would be 'chilling', especially on young scientists interested in careers in basic science.

In their personal statements and questions, both Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) echoed earlier comments about their disappointment with the flat-funding of most NIH Institutes in the President’s budget, especially in regards to Alzheimer’s research. 

In her questioning of the panel, Senator Capito asked about the new Advanced Health Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H), which was funded at a level of $1.5 billion in FY2023 and is slated for a $1 billion increase in the President’s budget. Senator Capito asked about why the new agency is getting a substantial increase while the NIH Institutes are essentially flat-funded or even cut.  Dr. Tabak responded that ARPA-H was set up as a separate research institution but using the NIH business structures to help speed up its establishment.  He noted that the goal of ARPA-H was to fund high-risk, high-reward science, avoiding duplication of research being funded at the main NIH Institutes but instead being complimentary of current NIH activities. He finished by saying that the  Director of ARPA-H, Renee Wegrzyn, PhD, is currently building out her staff and ramping up funding opportunities, having just released its first Broad Agency Announcement last week.

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

  • Douglas Lowy, MD (Principal Deputy Director, National Cancer Institute)
  • Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD (National Institutes of Mental Health)
  • Richard Hodes, MD (National Institute on Aging)
  • Nora Volkow, MD (National Institute on Drug Abuse)