Senate Panel Questions NIH's 2013 Budget Plan

Senator Tom Harkin

A Senate spending panel today gently probed National Institutes of Health (NIH) leaders about their budget plan for next year, including how they would find more funding for research on Alzheimer's disease. One member also questioned NIH's proposal to cap the amount of funding for any single investigator in order to support more grants. (The Administration's budget for NIH in 2013 is $30.86 billion—the same level as this year.)

The tone at a hearing held by a Senate appropriations subcommittee, which featured NIH Director Francis Collins and several NIH institute directors, was much friendlier than a session held by the corresponding House of Representatives panel last week that included sharp criticism of a new NIH center aimed at speeding drug development. But Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who chairs the subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education, had one complaint: He was troubled by President Barack Obama's plan to give NIH an extra $80 million for Alzheimer's research. The money would come from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) fund created by the 2010 health care reform act to support disease prevention activities, which he supports.

Research is not an appropriate use of the HHS fund, Harkin warned. "I'm a strong supporter of Alzheimer's research, but this $80 million isn't happening," he said. "NIH has the flexibility to direct a larger share of its funding to Alzheimer's research within its own budget," assuming there are scientific opportunities and high-quality applications, Harkin said. That position could put pressure on NIH to squeeze grants in other areas in order to carve out extra money for researching the disease.

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) also questioned NIH's plan to prop up the number of grants it funds by capping the total amount of funding an investigator can receive at $1.5 million. Such a policy "does not let science dictate funding decisions," Shelby said.

Collins answered that NIH considers itself a "meritocracy" and departing from that philosophy wasn't an easy decision: "We debated over many months whether in fact there were levers that NIH might be willing to try to pull" to fund more grants, he said. The $1.5 million "is not a cap," he added, but means grant proposals from the 6% of NIH investigators who already have that much funding will "get a little bit more scrutiny."

Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) was concerned about NIH's plan to trim its Institutional Development and Award (IDeA) program for states with relatively little NIH funding. Congress gave IDeA a hefty $51 million increase last year, and NIH wants to trim it back to the 2011 level of $225 million. On this point, Harkin seemed to agree with NIH: "We're not in the business of just spreading money around," he said.

Harkin also asked what it would mean for NIH if Congress fails to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit and mandatory budget cuts kick in. The so-called sequestration cuts could mean 2300 fewer new and competing grants next year, or 1/4 of the total, which would be "devastating," Collins said. Projects such as a universal flu vaccine and efforts to use cell phone technology to improve health "would be put at great risk," Collins said.

One panel member, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), asked about NIH's controversial plan to modify the design of the National Children's Study (NCS), which plans to follow the health of 100,000 children from before birth to age 21. Brown said that Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine is running NCS pilot studies in two Ohio counties that are among seven "vanguard" centers that may not be part of the redesigned main study. The school's two NCS contracts employ 60 people, Brown noted.

Collins didn't comment on NIH's plans for these vanguard centers, but said NIH's decision to recruit through health care providers instead of "knocking on doors" will still be "geographically distributed" and will not leave out groups who lack health coverage. He said the design is still being worked out.