Congressional hearings demonstrate bipartisan support for research funding

But appropriators express concern about mandatory funding in Obama proposals

Two recent House Appropriations Committee hearings on the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget requests for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) demonstrated bipartisan support for the nation’s research agencies. The enthusiasm for providing increases to NIH and NSF was evident even as members of Congress expressed concern about the Obama administration’s plans to increase their budgets by relying on mandatory rather than discretionary dollars.

Given that appropriators have little control over spending on mandatory programs, their opposition to the President’s proposals is not a surprise. As House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said during one of the hearings, “We don’t like mandatory spending. It’s grown completely out of control.”

NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and his colleagues Doug Lowy, MD, Anthony Fauci, MD, Richard Hodes, MD, and Nora Volkow, MD, received a warm welcome when they testified before the House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee on March 16. In his opening statement, LHHS Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) thanked Dr. Collins for hosting subcommittee members who visited the NIH campus in late February and noted with pride the $2 billion increase for biomedical research that was included in the 2016 omnibus appropriations bill.

The chairman also said the subcommittee will not cut $1 billion out of NIH’s discretionary budget as proposed by President Obama, adding “We need to ensure an efficient basic biomedical research base is sustained to pave the way for long-term advancements.” Cole’s comments were echoed by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) who stated, “I want to note my concern over mandatory funding for NIH. An increase to this subcommittee’s allocation is a straight forward and responsible way to support NIH research rather than to rely on mandatory funding that will not materialize.”

During a period of questions following Dr. Collins’s testimony, Cole asked about the impact of such a cut to NIH’s budget. Collins said, “The impact would be severe. It would be felt across every aspect of what NIH supports.” Cole then asked the NIH Director what the agency could do if Congress provided additional money beyond what the President requested. In his response Collins noted, “A great deal of the research that we support is ideas that come to us from investigators all over the country. We would want to be sure to do something to encourage even more of those grants to be fundable.”

Other topics discussed at the hearing were NIH’s role in addressing prescription drug and opioid abuse, efforts to combat Zika virus, the Cancer Moonshot program, precision medicine initiative, and new policies to ensure that research funded by the agency includes male and female animals in preclinical studies.

France Córdova, PhD, Director of NSF also faced a friendly audience when she testified before the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee in support of the agency’s FY 2017 budget request. Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) began the hearing by stating his strong support for NSF, but he immediately dismissed the Administration’s proposal to provide $400 million of NSF’s $500 million budget increase via mandatory funding.

The rest of the hearing was a discussion of various topics including the importance of federal funding for basic research in all fields of science, support for young investigators, the role of community colleges, cybersecurity, the use of decadal surveys to help set priorities, interagency coordination, the value of the social sciences, and risk and resilience research. Questions related to the biological sciences from committee members touched upon NSF priority areas including neuroscience, the interdisciplinary study of food, energy, and water, and the ocean sciences. There was also an extensive conversation about the recent discovery of gravitational waves via the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory as a case study for the importance of sustained investments in basic, curiosity-driven research.

Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) and Dr. Córdova talked about the value of funding priorities established by the scientific community rather than mandated by Congress. Chairman Culberson and other members of the subcommittee echoed these sentiments, stating that political considerations should not be inserted into NSF’s scientific deliberations.