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Collins, Science Leaders Tell Senate Committee that Budget Battles Have Wrought an 'Innovation Deficit'

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – At a gathering of the full US Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday, leaders of several of the largest US federal science agencies gathered to make their case that basic research and development should receive sustained and stable investments, even as Washington endures continuing budget battles.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and the heads of the other science agencies told the committee that year-upon-year of flat federal research funding, irregular budget processes, the sudden blow of last year's sequestration, and the silent erosion of inflation could cost the US its status as the global leader in science and innovation.

"What we desperately need is a new bipartisan plan to secure a steady funding trajectory for biomedical research and ensure long-term stability for NIH's mission," Collins said.

China and other countries in Asia and Europe have been increasing their investments in basic R&D, the agency leaders said repeatedly, just as science funding in the US has become a pawn in a larger fight over federal spending.

Collins said "the Human Genome Project and subsequent genomics research, funded by NIH, has spurred numerous genetic and genomic advancements to develop new diagnostic tests, treatments, and technologies."

Aside from leading to technological innovations and enhanced life expectancy, he said there is a compelling economic case to be made for biomedical research funding.

"Economic analyses confirm the roughly two-to-one return that occurs within the first year after a grant has been awarded. Some of those returns have been truly dramatic."

He cited data from several reports that highlighted the long-term economic payoffs that have sprung from NIH-funded research, including a Battelle report which estimated that the $3.8 billion investment in the HGP and later genomics research has yielded nearly $1 trillion in economic returns over the past two decades.

"That is a 178-fold return on investment. Not bad," Collins said.

He argued that NIH funding in fiscal year 2012 supported more than 402,000 jobs and generated $57.8 billion in economic output, while discoveries arising from NIH-supported science contributed $69 billion to the national GDP in 2011 through the US biomedical industry.

In his verbal statements and in written testimony he submitted to the committee, Collins offered thumbnail sketches of some NIH initiatives that he says offer great promise, and particularly highlighted the Accelerating Medicines Partnership and the BRAIN Initiative.

The AMP is a collaboration between biotech and pharmaceutical companies and NIH aimed at identifying and validating drug and disease targets, and the BRAIN Initiative is an effort to develop new technologies for imaging and studying the human brain and use those tools to create a much clearer picture of how this organ functions.

"The scientific possibilities have never been more promising," he told the committee.

The hearing comes near the beginning of the federal appropriations season on Capitol Hill, and at a time when committee leaders, notably Sen. Richard Shelby (R – Ala.), have said they seek a return to "regular order" in the budgeting process after several straight years of protracted political battles over federal spending. As he is vice chairman for the Appropriations Committee and a leader in the Senate's Republican minority, Shelby's support for science funding suggests that the agency directors gathered yesterday could have an important ally as the budget season moves forward.

But just as he reiterated his desire for order in the appropriations process yesterday, as well as his support for federal research funding, he tempered his hope with caution due to the larger realities of the current budget situation. Although the Budget Control Act's sequestration, which cut NIH's budget by roughly 5 percent in 2013, has been put on hold for two years, the agreement that took its place includes hard spending caps on Congress and leaves very little wiggle room for lawmakers to give a boost to any agency.

Shelby said that the expected growth in mandatory spending on large programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which he estimated to increase by 80 percent over the next decade, could leave little room for any increases across the rest of government's discretionary budget.

"An unfortunate consequence of this [mandatory spending growth] is the crowding out of important parts of the federal budget, such as spending on research to find cures for diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. Even this year we will have to make some tough decisions about what research and development programs merit funding in our appropriations bill," Shelby said.

Collins' colleagues at the witness table included National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, Department of Energy Director Ernest Moniz, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Arati Prabhakar.

Each of these leaders offered examples of how research from their agencies has led to innovations that have impacted modern life, but also cautioned that unless the trajectory of federal R&D spending changes course the US will continue to lose ground in a global innovation race. They were greeted warmly by committee members on both sides of the aisle, as senators praised the contributions these agencies provide to the country as a whole and in the states they represent.

Still, by the end of the nearly three-hour hearing the question that hung over the proceedings about what could realistically be done to increase R&D funding in the current budget climate remained.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D – Ill.) offered up his proposal, a bill he has introduced called The American Cures Act (S. 2115) that would augment federal appropriations for biomedical research over the next 10 years. Specifically, the act would create a fund to provide a five percent increase each year at NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense Health Program, and the Veterans Medical and Prosthetics Research Program. That bill, which so far only has Democratic co-sponsors, was introduced in March and has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

In his testimony, Francis Collins also mentioned that the White House's fiscal year 2015 budget plan offers another idea. The Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative would provide an additional $970 million for R&D spending that would support at least 650 more research project grants and would boost funding for the BRAIN Initiative and for DARPA initiatives, he said.

Neither of these two proposals has thus far gained enough popular or bipartisan support to suggest that they have much chance of passing Congress anytime soon, however.