At a Senate hearing today, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins warned that the fraction of grant applications that are funded this year could drop below 20% for the first time. Lawmakers also quizzed the NIH chief about his plan to create a new center for translational research.
The crash in so-called success rates comes because this year NIH's budget was cut by $322 million, or 1%. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH's budget, noted that as a result, success rates are expected to drop to 17% to 18%. That is down from 20% this year and would be "the lowest in history," Collins later said. Harkin also worried about next year, noting that if a House proposal to cut health spending 9% prevails, "severe reductions to NIH research would be unavoidable." President Barack Obama, by contrast, has requested a 2.4% boost over the 2010 level of $31 billion for the agency.
The hearing also discussed the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which would spur the development of drugs. In his first presentation of the center to Congress, Collins tried to allay concerns that drug development is not the proper role of the federal agency in Bethesda, Maryland. "NCATS will complement, not compete with, the private sector. This is not Bethesda Pharma," he said.
But ranking member Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) said that although he supports the idea of an "entity" to bridge research and industry, he wonders whether NCATS is "the right mechanism."
The NCATS plan has also been controversial because it entails dismantling another NIH center, the National Center for Research Resources. Shelby expressed concern about the reorganization, which "will shift at least $1.3 billion" among various institutes. He called for "thoughtful consideration to the effect that [NCATS] will have on the NIH, the extramural research community, and the private pharmaceutical world." He complained that NIH proposed NCATS in December but hasn't yet submitted details on its budget to Congress.
Collins called the reorganization "a complicated process" but defended his decision to quickly create NCATS by October "to move the science forward." He said the budget plan is still wending its way through various offices but should be coming "in the next few weeks."
Other questions were more curious than critical: Shelby asked about NCATS's plan to "repurpose," or find new uses for, approved drugs. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), who said, "I think medical research is a huge component of the future of our country," noted that he visited a small-molecule screening center last week at the University of Kansas that would be part of NCATS.