House Committees Probe NIH Spending on Public Relations

In an unusual joint investigation, Republican members of two House of Representatives committees are asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for details on how much the $30 billion agency spends on communications and public relations. Some of this money could be cut to help the agency make up for funds lost this year to across-the-board spending cuts, the letter suggests.

Five Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and two on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH's budget wrote NIH Director Francis Collins about the matter on 12 April. Their letter cites a recent editorial in Nature that discusses an investigation by a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter, The Cancer Letter, that found that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent $45 million on communications in 2012, almost twice the amount spent by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The lawmakers note that Nature suggested that the money could have funded 100 research grants.

"Given the need for the NIH to find ways to control spending, our Committees are interested in examining the expenditures … for separate offices of communications or public relations" at NIH's 27 institutes and centers and the NIH director's office, the letter says. It asks NIH to provide budget information and other details about its communications spending from 2010 through 2013 by 25 April.

NCI Director Harold Varmus has been looking at the institute's public relations operations and killed a publication called the NCI Cancer Bulletin in January. An advisory group will report on NCI's overall communications activities in June.