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Collins Calls for Additional NIH Funding Amid Debate Over Mandatory Spending

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins today told a Senate subcommittee that a loss of future funding for the agency would be "devastating" and threaten its most promising programs.

"We would have to cut the number of new and competing grants that we give [substantially], and great ideas that scientists are putting forward would go unsupported," Collins told the Subcommittee of the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies during a hearing to review the fiscal year 2017 budget request for the NIH. "The momentum that has been started thanks to [the subcommittee's] efforts in FY16 would be severely damaged."

After a number of delays, in December Congress came to an agreement on a fiscal year 2016 budget that included a $2 billion boost to the NIH's budget to $32 billion. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama shortly thereafter. The scope of NIH funding in fiscal 2017 and beyond, however, remains unclear.

In February, the President proposed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would provide the NIH with $33.1 billion — including $1.8 billion in mandatory funding that Congressional Republicans have resisted in favor of discretionary spending.

"The budget as it is submitted leans heavily on new mandatory spending proposals that would bypass the current spending caps," Subcommittee Chairman Senator Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) said today. "Instead of making the difficult funding choices, the administration has come up with proposals that are unlikely to happen."

Collins declined to weigh in on the debate over mandatory versus discretionary budgets, noting that "all of us at NIH are a little puzzled by the consequences of what those particular options might be." He did state that "it would be deeply unfortunate if these kinds of conversations resulted in an overall decrease in the resources we have.

"Our concern is to try to see, by some means, an increase in the support for biomedical research at a time of such great opportunity," Collins added.

When pressed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Mary.) on the exact amount of funding the NIH hopes to receive, Collins said that "a stable trajectory of inflation plus five percent for multiple years in a row would be a wonderful way to support medical research," conceding that that would effectively double the agency's budget in about seven years.

The wrangling over mandatory versus discretionary funding for the NIH was also on display yesterday at a meeting of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) to vote on companion bills to the 21st Century Cures Act.

Last summer, the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of the legislation, which would provide the NIH with about $9 billion in mandatory funding over five years beginning in fiscal 2016. It also called for the creation of a special fund for basic, translational, and clinical research at the NIH and changes to the US Food and Drug Administration approval process.

But the HELP committee decided not to consider the act in its entirety, opting to vote on separate, narrower bills related to different aspects of the proposed legislation.

Yesterday, it concluded the last of three markup sessions around the Cures Act and has passed a total of 19 bills. The committee did not vote on matter of NIH funding, however, although members highlighted the importance of coming to an agreement on this issue.

During the meeting, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that Democrats "will not support moving medical innovation legislation to the floor of the Senate until we have an agreement on NIH funding," but also that she was not going force a vote at the meeting on matter "in the interest of finding a workable compromise."

"The House has done it's job. We have done most of ours," HELP Chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) added during the meeting. "We should make sure we finish this, and the sooner, the better." 

A final deal on NIH funding could come as early as the end of next week, Alexander told The Hill yesterday.