Senate appropriators express support for NIH amidst tightening budgets

Collins warns of impact of budget cuts on future of U.S. science.

On May 15, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education held a hearing with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins to discuss the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 (FY14). As reported in the APA Federal Budget Blog, the president’s FY14 NIH budget request calls for a $471 million increase over FY12 for a total of $31.331 billion. However, any increase would be wiped out by the cuts required by sequestration, which would reduce the NIH budget by $19 billion over ten years.

Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, vowed not to savage the rest of the non-defense discretionary budget to support NIH but said he was looking for a balanced approach of spending cuts and increased revenue. While calling this a perilous moment for NIH, Harkin and Ranking Member Jerry Moran, R-Kan., both called for Congress to prioritize federal commitments to research in order maintain the country’s leadership in biomedical research. According to Collins, budget cuts combined with sequestration have led to a 22 percent decrease in purchasing power at the agency since 2003, putting a generation of scientists as risk and stunting the nation’s global competitiveness. Highlighting promising scientific advances being made in cancer research, vaccine development and stem cell research, Collins reiterated that sequestration was compromising the future of biomedical research.

One of the newest initiatives in the president’s budget called for NIH to invest $40 million in the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a collaboration with the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. As the ultimate goal of the BRAIN Initiative is not as clearly defined as the goal of the Human Genome Project, several questions were raised by subcommittee members about what NIH and its partners are hoping to accomplish. Collins stated that the ultimate goal was to accelerate technologies to observe how brain circuits actually function. “By measuring activity at the scale of circuits and networks of living organisms, we can begin to translate data into models that will decode sensory experience, motor planning and potentially even memory, emotion and thought.” While the BRAIN Initiative is focused on developing neurotechnologies, Collins reiterated, “We believe that successful completion of the BRAIN Initiative will revolutionize the field of neuroscience and set the stage for major advances in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, autism, schizophrenia, depression and epilepsy.”

Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was also in attendance and voiced her strong support for NIH, and vowed to “work my earrings off to make sure you can achieve your mission.” Senator Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said NIH was the top investment Congress can make and though he would like to see Congress double the NIH budget, he would at least hope to put NIH on an upward trend again.

The full hearing webcast is available on the Senate Committee on Appropriations website.

For more information contact Karen Studwell.