NIH Director Dr. Zerhouni Appears Before Senate Appropriators; Researchers Testify About Impact of NIH Flat-funding Prior to Release of Report

NIH Director Dr. Zerhouni Appears Before Senate Appropriators;
Researchers Testify about Impact of NIH Flat-Funding Prior to Release of Report

Legislative Update
March 19, 2007

On Monday, March 19, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni testified before the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), with Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) serving as Ranking Member.

Dr. Zerhouni’s testimony was similar to that provided at the March 6 House LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, with the theme of how NIH is responding on a trans-institute basis to the nation’s greatest health challenges with research and clinical practice that is preemptive, predictive, preventive, and personalized. However, in responses to questions, he spoke in greater details about key issues than at the March 6 hearing, including:

  • Cautioning that the current Administration embryonic stem cell policy is limiting the nation’s abilityto fundamentally understand the molecular drivers of cell differentiation, which jeopardize the United States’ scientific and competitive leadership. This was Dr. Zerhouni’s strongest statement to date about the limitations of the current policy, which the Democratic leadership of Congress proposes to expand.
  • Explaining what NIH would do with a 6.7 percent increase in funding over FY2007, as requested by the medical research advocacy community (including NAEVR). Dr. Zerhouni stated that NIH could devote greater dollars to “recovering, recruiting, and retaining good scientists” by increasing the success rates of grant awards for investigator-initiated basic research (especially that of new investigators), as well as “recovering the ability to conduct clinical trials,” which he noted were a casualty of flat budgets due to their high costs (over the last four years, although NIH’s purchasing power decreased by 13 percent overall, its purchasing power decreased by 35 percent in the clinical trials arena).

Dr. Zerhouni’s testimony was followed by a panel of four NIH-funded scientists who addressed the impact of the flat-funding of NIH on the U.S. biomedical research enterprise. The witnesses, including Dr. Brent Iverson (University of Texas at Austin), Dr. Joan Brugge (Harvard Medical School), Dr. Robert Siliciano (John Hopkins University School of Medicine), and Dr. Stephen Strittmatter (Yale University School of Medicine) testified that flat-funding of NIH has:

  • Resulted in a retrenchment of high-risk, high-yield research.
  • Jeopardized training of new researchers at both the graduate and undergraduate level, threatening the future scientific leadership of the United States.
  • Threatened the continuity of research, due to delays in funding that often result in the loss of good researchers and support staff and which burdens researchers with seeking other sources of funding.

Senator Harkin concluded the hearing by announcing that he planned five others with the next few weeks, to include testimony from the Directors of all NIH Institutes and Centers. NAEVR submitted written testimony to the file of this hearing, as well as that of the March 6 House hearing.

Immediately after the hearing, Sens. Harkin and Specter participated in a press event held by nine of the nation’s leading research universities which released a report entitled Within Our Grasp—Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress. The report details the impact of NIH flat-funding/budget cuts on key areas of biomedical research, including: memory, cancer, infectious disease, diabetes (including diabetic retinopathy), spinal cord damage and bioterrorism.