NIH chief: Short-term spending bill 'painful' for medical research

NIH chief: Short-term spending bill 'painful' for medical research

This story first appeared on The Hill Extra. 

The head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is warning that plans to pass a short-term government spending bill could deal a blow to health research.

NIH Director Francis Collins on Thursday called the plan for a continuing resolution (CR), which would extend current spending levels until March, "an extremely unfortunate and painful outcome for biomedical research.”

Collins said researchers needed more funding.

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“We do not now lack for talent. We do not now lack for ideas,” he said at a Bipartisan Policy Center meeting on the promise of medical innovation. “The only thing that’s limiting at the present time is the resources to make this happen.”

“CR attenuates progress,” Collins jokingly said, highlighting that the acronym spells out the word crap.

Congress provided NIH an additional $2 billion in fiscal 2016, a 7 percent boost after the agency lost roughly 20 percent of its resources between 2003 and 2015, Collins said.

“I can’t say how critical it is — and I know I’m speaking for many of the others who have worked on this — that that not be a one year wonder but actually the start of a trend,” he said.

Funding predictions

Collins called for “sustainable, predictable growth in research support,” suggesting increases that follow inflation plus 5 percent each year. He said the agency received those kinds of routine increases in years past, before funding plateaued and was then affected by across the board cuts, called sequestration. 

Collins said he had been optimistic about NIH funding until the CR proposal Thursday morning.

The funding proposals House and Senate appropriators agreed on earlier this year included increases at NIH for fiscal 2017, including boosts for Alzheimer’s research that has suffered from inadequate funding, he said. 

“If we don’t know whether we have that until March 31 and we have to spend it by September, I frankly don’t think there’s a way to do that that doesn’t put at some risk whether the funds are going to get spent in the most innovative way,” he said. “That’s just tying our hands behind our back in terms of trying to do what we thought Congress and the public wanted us to do.”

Collins said he hopes people have other ideas going forward or at least look at other legislative alternatives in the budget process to find funding for medical research.

Hope in Cures

Despite their disappointment in fiscal 2017 funding discussions, Collins and others at Thursday’s event said they are hopeful that the 21st Century Cures bill (H.R. 6) to enhance biomedical innovation will pass this year.

“We remain very hopeful that in this lame duck session whatever remaining wrinkles can be unwrinkled,” Collins said. “This is something that can, in fact, achieve passage.”

Congressional leaders say they are ready to bring the package up for votes very soon, though lawmakers have not disclosed how they will find money to pay for parts of the measure. The bill includes additional funding for NIH to advance certain initiatives such as personalized drug development and cancer cures.

While disappointed with the funding debate, Collins hailed the work of scientists and researchers he said were advancing cures for mental disorders and diseases, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, infectious diseases and cancer.

“The process of moving forward is ever more clear with the appropriate resources,” he said.

Now or never

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, president of Samaritan Health Initiatives, said there has been a great deal of community engagement over the past two years that the bill has been under development.

“It’d be very, very difficult for them to just trash it,” he said. 

He warned that not acting on the bill could kill it.

“In fact, if they don’t do anything, it is in the trash can,” he continued. “You’ve got to start all over again.”

Von Eschenbach also said passing the bill would allow the next Congress and administration to move onto other substantive policy issues, such as whether to make the FDA a more independent agency or the feasibility of a trust fund for NIH research funding.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) President James Greenwood also noted that the legislation is effectively a swan song for outgoing House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has been a respected leader and gained bipartisan support for the bill.

Without Upton at the helm, what happens to the Cures bill is anyone’s guess, panelists said. 

“If we don’t pass Cures now, we have lost the opportunity,” said Friends of Cancer Research founder and chairwoman Ellen Sigal. “I don’t think we’ll see this opportunity again.”

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