May 23, 2018
On May 17, NIH Director Francis Collins testified before the Senate Labor, Health and Human and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, providing details about not only how the agency intends to spend its $3 billion increase in the remaining months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, but also discussing its FY 2019 outlook.
Dr. Collins took advantage of the hearing to announce NIH had suspended enrollment in a study on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. The study, which had received significant attention during a recent NIH hearing before the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee, drew controversy for involving industry in its initial planning stages—a factor that members of Congress worry could influence the study’s eventual findings. Dr. Collins announced that the study has been halted while NIH investigates the matter. In addition, Dr. Collins said he had convened a working group to investigate more broadly NIH’s ties to outside funders. Dr. Collins said, ““We will look closely to see if there are other examples of this sort because that would be very much against the principles that we stand for, which is separation of funding sources from outside with decisions about science.”
The rest of the hearing was a very positive exchange of information regarding NIH activities on numerous pressing public health issues. Senators peppered Dr. Collins, as well as the other Institute and Center Directors who accompanied him, on a wide range of topics including the recent resurgence of the Ebola virus, universal flu vaccine development, opioid addiction, and Alzheimer’s disease. Senators were particularly interested in learning more about research into non-opioid alternatives to treat addiction and how the NIH is working with the pharmaceutical industry—particularly given the industry’s links to the opioid crisis’ origins. Dr. Collins assured the subcommittee that the NIH is not receiving direct cash contributions from the industry, but rather is sharing information and collaborating in ways that include exchanging data and materials and running clinical trials through existing partnerships.
In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) expressed his commitment to prioritizing NIH funding in FY 2019 and his belief that other subcommittee members will join him in supporting increased funding for the agency. Of note, however, is the fact that the Subcommittee received only $2 billion additional monies for FY 2019 for all of the agencies and programs in its bill, which means that increased funding for NIH will compete with other priorities.
A month earlier, the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee also heard from NIH about its budget request for FY 2019. Given the recent enactment of the FY 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, which provided NIH with the historic $3 billion increase over FY 2017, the mood was very upbeat with members from both sides of the aisle expressing enthusiasm for the NIH and its mission, while also sharing their clear disappointment in the Administration’s NIH FY 2019 request, $35.5 billion—almost $2 billion below the FY 2018 enacted funding level.
In his opening statement, Dr. Collins emphasized five key areas to success in science: stable funding support, a vibrant workforce, computational power, new technologies and facilities, and scientific inspiration. He also shared data illustrating increases in the number of principal investigators that the NIH has supported since 2016 when the agency’s budget began to steadily increase.
During the House Subcommittee’s question and answer period, Dr. Collins and the Institute Directors were asked about a number of issues ranging from the agency’s research agendas related to opioid addiction, Down Syndrome, maternal and fetal health, health disparities, cancer detection, and infectious diseases. Dr. Collins was also pressed by Congresswoman Roybal-Allard (D-CA) to answer questions regarding news reports accusing the agency of soliciting funding from the alcohol industry for a study on the benefits of moderate drinking. Dr. Collins refused to provide extensive details, given the study is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Members of the subcommittee did not ask questions specific to the agency’s behavioral and social science research portfolio per say, but many of the officials’ responses were clearly informed by research outcomes and activities that the NIH is supporting across all of the behavioral and social sciences. Congressman Cole (R-OK), reiterated his strong support for the NIH, but tempered expectations that a similar $3 billion increase would be possible in FY 2019.