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Flat NIH Budget Stirs Concerns in Senate Hearing

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – On a visit to Capitol Hill today to present the White House's proposed 2013 budget for the National Institutes of Health, NIH Director Francis Collins today heard worries from senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that the flat budget will result in cuts for biomedical research funding.

During testimony before the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, Collins and key senators agreed that the Obama Administration's funding request for NIH of $30.86 billion — part of a belt-tightening effort across the government aimed at reining in the deficit — poses challenges for the institute.

Senator Richard Shelby (R - Ala.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said that the White House's proposal "abandons" the government's commitment to funding biomedical research, and he said he worries that some NIH efforts to trim back its budget will damage the institute's ability to fulfill its mission.

"I understand that constrained budgets lead to tough decisions, however it is critical that NIH not lose sight of its goal to fund the best science in the hope of reducing the burden of illness."

"That said, I'm concerned about several proposed changes," pointing specifically to an NIH plan to place a cap on the amount of funding an investigator can receive per year at $1.5 million.

"This proposal discourages success by limiting the awards of some of the most successful scientists, who accordingly receive the most grant funding. By limiting grant award amounts you are changing the system from one that grants awards based on scientific merit and good ideas to one based on whether an investigator has previously received a grant," Shelby said.

"I'm also troubled by proposals to cap inflationary costs and reduce the awards for competing research project grants below the 2012 year level. While I recognize that you are trying to keep the success rate high and fund as many grants as possible, I question whether this is the right approach," he added.

Shelby also said he was concerned that total NIH funding in the proposal continues a recent trend of not keeping up with biomedical inflation, which means NIH funding is now "17 percent below where it was 10 years ago."

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D - Iowa) concurred with Shelby, saying he was concerned that deficit-driven neglect of funding for NIH could eventually lead to the US losing its status as a science leader.

"A classic case of penny-wise and pound-foolish thinking, especially when China and India are spending more, and not less, on medical research," he said.

However, Harkin also suggested that the Obama budget proposal does not exist in a political vacuum, adding that the most recent budget plan from Republicans in Congress would be more damaging for NIH. He said that the budget proposed recently by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R - Wis.) "is even more worrisome."

"In Fiscal Year 2013, the Ryan plan would cut non-defense spending by five percent. The following year it would cut non-defense spending by 19 percent. If that cut were applied equally across government, the number of promising NIH research grants would shrink by more than 1,600 in 2014 and by more than 16,000 over the next decade," Harkin said.

Collins, who is experienced in advocating for more research funding on Capitol Hill, agreed with the Senators' general assessment of the difficulties and risks of tightened budgets. But he also had to explain how the White House proposal will enable NIH to continue pursuing its charge.

He said that in FY '13 NIH expects to support an estimated 9,415 new and competing research project grants. "That's an increase of 672 above the estimate for FY '12," with an average grant cost of about $431,000. He projected that NIH will fund a total of 35,888 total RPGs next year, under this budget.

Partly in response to Shelby's concerns, Collins explained that NIH plans to use small cuts and curbs on growth to enable the agency to provide support to early investigators while continuing to fund more established researchers.

"To maximize funding for investigator-initiated grants and to continue our support for first-time researchers, we had to make some tough choices," said Collins. "For example, we propose to reduce budgets for non-competing RPGs by 1 percent from the FY12 level, and to restrain growth to the average size of the awards. In addition, we will no longer assume out-year inflationary increases for new and continuing grants," he noted.

Collins also highlighted NIH efforts to advance basic research into clinical applications through the National Center for Advancing Translational Research, which will receive $639 million under the plan, and he explained how advances in genome sequencing and genomic medicine have been used to develop new understanding of diseases, new cures, for new treatments for Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis.

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