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Francis Collins Warns Of 'Devastating' Effect of Budget Crisis on NIH-Funded Research

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Amid concerns about whether Congress will be able to come to an agreement on a federal budget before the expiration of a temporary funding agreement, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins warned a Congressional subcommittee that a number of the agency's key initiatives would be set back or even put on hold entirely if it does not get additional funding in fiscal year 2016.

At the top of the list of threatened research programs, he said, is the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovation, or BRAIN, Initiative. 

The former, unveiled by President Barack Obama in January, aims to, among other things, develop a voluntary national research cohort of more than 1 million people and obtain sequencing data for as many of those individuals as possible to identify genomic drivers of cancer. The latter was launched in 2013 and focuses on accelerating the development of new technologies for imaging, mapping, and studying the brain. 

The kind of basic scientific inquiry taking place in these programs "is leading to a healthier future for all Americans," Collins told a Senate subcommittee this morning. "But to realize that future, NIH needs your sustained support."

The fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1 and Congress must reach a budget agreement in order to keep federal programs running.

Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill, called the 21st Century Cures Act, to increase NIH funding by about $10 billion over five years beginning in fiscal year 2016 when the agency would receive $31.81 billion — about $500 million more than the $31.3 billion proposed by the president in his budget request.

Despite signs that the bill would also clear the US Senate, the possibility remains that Congress will not be able to agree on a full-year budget before the December 11 expiration of a short-term spending bill — known as a continuing resolution — that prevented a government shutdown last week.

During the subcommittee hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked Collins about the effect Congress's failure to come to terms on a budget would have on the NIH, specifically citing the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution that would keep the agency's budget at 2015 levels during the coming fiscal year.

Such a situation, Collins said, "would be simply devastating.

"The Precision Medicine Initiative, for instance, would basically have to go … on mothballs," he noted. "Similarly, imagine the Brain Initiative, which is on this exciting ramp … would basically have to take a pause for a year just at the point when momentum is building."

The NIH can "struggle along" with the continuing resolution passed last week, Collins said. "But if it is a year-long CR without an [exception for NIH funding], it's a dark year, indeed." 

Other NIH-funded efforts that would suffer without a budget agreement are ones related to vaccine development, Collins said.

"We are on the brink of being able to develop a vaccine that would work against all influenza strains … [and help protect] against a worldwide pandemic, which is overdue," he said. "We are not pushing that as hard as we should be because the resources simply are not there."

At the same time, "we really do now see a path to make [an HIV/AIDS vaccine] happen after 30 very frustrating years, and yet we can't go as fast as we'd like to with the resources we've got," he added.

Collins also stressed that failing to reach a budget agreement would have economic consequences in addition to its effect on healthcare research. 

"The repeated economic analysis demonstrates that the return on investment for dollars that go to NIH is about 2.2-fold in the first year to the local community," he said. "And of course, our dollars go out to all 50 states."

Expressing her support for greater funding to the NIH, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) echoed this sentiment. 

"When you think about the jobs that are created because of [the NIH] in pharmaceuticals, biomedicals, medical devices, you are a turbo engine," she said. "So rather than seeing you as a cost factor, we should see you as an economic generator."