House Lawmakers Grill NIH Leaders on 'Translational' Spending

National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials faced tough questions from a House of Representatives panel today about their desire to slash a program for states with relatively little NIH funding while giving a hefty increase to a new center aimed at speeding drug development. The House panel also heard clashing views from witnesses about the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

The setting was a hearing held by the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education to discuss NIH's proposed 2013 budget—frozen at $31 billion—as well as NCATS, which Congress signed off on in December. Panel chair Denny Rehberg (R-MT) reminded NIH Director Francis Collins and acting NCATS director Thomas Insel that while he now supports NCATS, he wasn't happy with its hurried creation, which caused an uproar among scientists last year: "It's no secret that I didn't necessarily like the way NCATS came about."

Rehberg emphasized that Congress did not give NCATS the authority to "compete with industry or become a drug development organization." He also expressed concern about a shift away from basic research, now about 55% of NIH's budget. Collins assured him that he does not expect that figure to change.

Several panel members also noted that NIH wants to boost NCATS's budget by $64 million (to $639 million) while cutting $51 million from the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) that help states become stronger competitors for NIH research grants. Collins explained that Congress gave IDeA an extra $50 million this year, an increase that NIH views as "a much needed one time boost." The agency wants to use that money in 2013 for other priorities.

Rehberg disagreed: "We did not suggest ... that these were 1-year funds," he said. And he and several other lawmakers from IDeA states suggested that the money cut from IDeA appears to be going to NCATS. "It does cut one place and add another," said Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). Collins demurred: "Those are not the same dollars that just got moved from one box to another. This is part of a big overall plan to figure out where the scientific opportunities are most pressing," he said.

Only a few panelists discussed the overall budget picture for NIH; adjusted for inflation, it has now been flat for a decade. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) hearkened back to the late 1990s when Congress decided to double NIH's budget over 5 years. "That ought to be our goal again," she said. And Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) said she's pushing for $32 billion for NIH in 2013. DeLauro also asked what would happen in the worst-case scenario, if Congress fails to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit and NIH is hit with a mandatory budget cut of $2.5 billion. "It would be devastating," Collins said.

Later in the hearing, several witnesses explained their views on NCATs. Roy Vagelos, a former Merck CEO and chair of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, argued that what industry needs from NIH is not this new center, but basic research. Although certain things NCATS wants to do, such as improving toxicology tests, could be "helpful," they "are not the limiting issues in the development of new drugs," he said. He would prefer that the new money for NCATS go to young scientists. The 17% success rate they now face when seeking their first research grant is "is a direction for disaster," said Vagelos, who was also appearing as an adviser to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

But two other witnesses lauded the creation of NCATS. Scott Koenig, CEO of the biotech Macrogenetics who spoke for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said NCATS could "fill gaps" in areas that are not priorities for industry, such as predictive toxicology and finding new disease biomarkers. And Todd Scherer, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, said NIH could help industry by prioritizing new targets.

Another contentious proposal in NIH's 2013 budget, a change in design and 15% cut for the $193 Million National Children's Study, came up only in Rehberg's opening remarks. "Transparent discussion is needed to ensure the proposed changes do not undermine the scientific value of the study," he said.