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House Energy and Commerce Committee Approves NIH Reauthorization Legislation
By Karen Studwell
After three years and three draft bills, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) successfully passed his proposed reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006, with one week remaining before the House of Representatives goes into recess. After months of speculation about the status of the bill, Barton's office released a third draft on September 12th that aims to increase not only transparency and efficiency at NIH, but also the authority of the NIH Director and the ability of NIH to fund more trans-NIH initiatives. On Tuesday, September 19th, the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing with NIH Director Elias Zerhouni and a few representatives from the scientific community on Tuesday, September 19th, which was followed by a full Committee markup and approval of the bill on Wednesday, September 20th.
In multiple meetings and discussions with Committee staff, APA Public Policy staff reiterated the importance of preserving the integrity of the peer review system currently in place as well as maintaining the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) within the Office of the Director. While the legislation leaves the current peer review structure in place, OBSSR and other offices within the Director's office, including the Office of AIDS Research and the Office of Research on Women's Health, have been reorganized under a new Division of Program Coordination Planning and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI). Under this current draft, each of the offices retains its current legislative authority and functions and is still in the Director's office, but the NIH Director also has a new authority to add or eliminate offices within the Director's office after following a public process with input from public stakeholders.
More concerning for the individual Institutes and Centers (I/Cs) are the proposed changes to the funding levels for NIH overall and the proposed Common Fund that will support trans-NIH research identified by the DPCPSI. While this bill provides an authorization level, or budget ceiling, for NIH, the actual NIH funding level is decided by the Appropriations Committee. Currently, the NIH authorizing legislation does not contain a ceiling, which placed no restrictions on the appropriators when they decided to provide nearly fifteen percent increases to NIH for five years in an attempt to double its budget. The new legislation would permit only five percent increases for the three year authorization period. In addition, half of any increase to the NIH budget would be set aside for the Common Fund, which would fund trans-NIH initiatives, rather than going to the individual I/Cs until the Common Fund reaches 5 percent of the NIH budget, which today would be about $1.4 billion. Chairman Barton originally wanted to grow the Common Fund to ten to fifteen percent of the NIH budget, so views this new proposal as a compromise. Once the Common Fund reaches 5 percent, NIH will be asked to recommend a process that would eventually increase the Common Fund to ten percent of the overall NIH budget.
The legislation also institutes a new Scientific Review Management Board, which would be charged with evaluating NIH's structural organization every seven years and making any suggested changes in terms of the number of I/Cs or other management issues. Under the draft bill, the Board would consist of 21 members, 9 of which are I/C directors, and the remaining members would be representatives from public and private universities or private entities that have traditionally received NIH funds. The NIH Director would serve as a permanent ex officio member who may be appointed as Chair. The Secretary of HHS appoints all members.
Given the short turnaround for addressing some of these concerns, APA Public Policy staff worked with other scientific societies in supporting two amendments to the bill. The first, offered by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) proposed to increase the authorized funding levels for NIH from five percent to five percent plus the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI), which is considered the inflation rate for biomedical research. A second amendment sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) required congressional approval before any of the offices within the Office of the NIH Director, such as OBSSR, could be eliminated. Both amendments failed along party lines during the markup and the bill was ultimately approved by a vote of 42 to 1, with Rep. Markey the only Member voting no.
Chairman Barton indicated that he will seek full House approval of the bill next week by placing the bill on the suspension calendar, where it is likely to pass with little objection. When Congress returns from its fall recess in November, attention will shift to the Senate, which has not shown much interest yet in reauthorizing NIH. APA Public Policy staff will continue to work with Congressional staff to ensure that behavioral research is supported to the extent possible in the bill.