NIH director voices concerns about sequestration

Friday - 6/22/2012, 8:01pm EDT

By Esther Carey
Special to Federal News Radio

Members at all levels of the federal government are concerned about the effects potential sequestration could have on various governmental agencies if it goes into effect in January. Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee this week that he worries about what cuts may have to be made.

NIH Director Francis Collins

"It's on my mind sometimes at 3 o' clock in the morning," he said. "It could do serious damage to the progress that we now see in medical research."

Sequestration would cut NIH's budget by $2.4 billion, an 8 percent decrease, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said during the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. It would also force NIH to fund 2,300 fewer grants than currently available, according to Waxman.

When asked where Collins would make the cuts if Congress did not arrive at a budget solution, he said sequestration would affect all aspects of grant funding.

"There is lots of momentum and lots of anxiety among biomedical researchers," he said. "People bring their best and brightest ideas to NIH, but the amount of grants that are actually funded is already at a historically low level." Collins said it is challenging for researchers when NIH cannot know for certain year-to- year if money will be available to continue funding long-term projects.

NIH has faced funding issues before, but Collins said that this time "everyone would have shorter hair" as a result of the serious cuts that would come with sequestration.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) voiced concern that low grant funding could discourage the next generation of scientists from pursuing careers in research. Collins said it could also have a serious impact on the morale of scientists, particularly among new researchers who could easily get discouraged. He also warned that if the U.S. cannot offer funding to scientists, they may go to other countries such as China or India, which are increasingly supporting research.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) was also concerned about Title 42, a provision that allows the government to pay particularly skilled individuals a higher rate of pay to retain their services. When asked if that law was being used too freely, Collins said NIH was in the process of specifying limits for its use. But, Collins said, he believes using the provision is necessary in order to compete with private-sector jobs.

Another important issue currently under discussion at NIH is how to best bridge the "valley of death," the term medical researchers use to refer to the gap between discovering a potential cure and being able to produce it for public consumption. In an effort to improve the process, NIH created the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) earlier this year.

In his written testimony, Collins emphasized the importance of NCATS. Every year, researchers discover new therapies, but it takes an average of 13 years and more than $1 billion to get those discoveries into the medicine cabinets.

Collins said NCATS allows NIH to work with the private sector to clear some of the bottlenecks which frequently bog down the development pipeline. The center also looks at how drugs already in the market could be used for other purposes.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was skeptical of NCATS' role, questioning whether drug development was beyond what NIH should be focusing on. Collins reassured her that NCATS will not detract from the main focus of NIH, which is researching new issues. NCATS is simply a way to reorganize the agency's capabilities into more effective execution, he said.

Esther Carey is an intern at Federal News Radio.

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