The head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warned that postponing Congressional action on major spending bills until 2017 — as GOP leaders have said they will do — puts agency programming at risk.
Along with other advocates and industry representatives at a Bipartisan Policy Center briefing on Thursday, he lobbied for passing a full 2017 budget bill as well as the 21st Century Cures Act.
“If you really want biomedical research to flourish what you need is sustainable, predictable growth in research support,” said NIH director Francis Collins, PhD, MD.
Until Thursday morning, Collins was optimistic that NIH would see that kind of steady investment with the expected passage of the fiscal year 2017 omnibus budget. The initial House spending package recommended a boost of $1.25 billion for NIH and the Senate package gave NIH a $2 billion bump, he said.
“The news now sounds much less encouraging,” he said.
President-elect Donald Trump told leaders of the incoming Congress that he wanted a say in spending decisions, and they agreed.
Collins called the decision not to pass a regular spending bill but instead to extend a continuing resolution until March 2017, “an extremely unfortunate and painful outcome for biomedical research.”
Congress made the announcement after House Republicans met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Thursday morning.
“I think the new incoming government would like to have say-so on how money is going to be spent going into 2017,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R- Wisc.) said at a press conference, according to The Atlantic.
Thursday afternoon, Collins cited the substantial proposed increases in NIH’s budget for Alzheimer’s research as one example of programming that might suffer from the uncertainty triggered by the delay.
“[Y]ou can’t just turn a dial and suddenly figure out how wisely to spend significant resources. If we don’t know whether we have that [funding] until March 31 and we have to spend it by September, that’s just … tying our hands behind our back in terms of doing what we thought Congress and the public wanted us to do. “
Despite appearing visibly frustrated, Collins said he is “deeply hopeful” that things will turn around.
In addition to the regular spending bill, Collins also urged Congress to pass the 21st Century Cures Act.
The goal of “Cures” — as the bill is known for short — is to accelerate drug development by bolstering funding for both the NIH and the FDA. The bill has been passed in the House but not in the Senate.
A sticking point has been the mandatory funding of the NIH, with Republican lobbying for the agency to restructure its budget, reported Modern Healthcare in late October — noting that such issues may have been resolved.
“We remain very hopeful that in this lame duck session whatever remaining wrinkles [there are] can be unwrinkled, and this is something that can in fact achieve passage,” Collins said.
At a panel session following Collins’s talk, patient and research advocates and industry representatives spoke of the chances of the Cure Act passing this year.
Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a non-profit education and advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va., said she’s heard the Congressional Budget Office is reviewing “an apparent deal” but that it’s too soon to say what it looks like.
“We’re very close to the finish line,” she said.
James “Jim” Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said he’s optimistic Cures will pass even in a lame duck session.
He and others at the session emphasized that the bill faces an uncertain future if not enacted in the current Congress. Greenwood noted that the bill’s principal backer is Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who will be giving up his chairmanship of the pivotal House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It would be very difficult to pass the bill next year without Upton at the helm, he added.
Others were more blunt.
“If we don’t pass ‘Cures’ now we will not have another opportunity. I do not think it will come alive in another Congress,” said Ellen Sigal, PhD, founder and chair of Friends of Cancer Research.