National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials faced tough questions from a House of Representatives panel today about their desire to slash a program for states with relatively little NIH funding while giving a hefty increase to a new center aimed at speeding drug development. The House panel also heard clashing views from witnesses about the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).
The setting was a hearing held by the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education to discuss NIH's proposed 2013 budget—frozen at $31 billion—as well as NCATS, which Congress signed off on in December. Panel chair Denny Rehberg (R-MT) reminded NIH Director Francis Collins and acting NCATS director Thomas Insel that while he now supports NCATS, he wasn't happy with its hurried creation, which caused an uproar among scientists last year: "It's no secret that I didn't necessarily like the way NCATS came about."
Rehberg emphasized that Congress did not give NCATS the authority to "compete with industry or become a drug development organization." He also expressed concern about a shift away from basic research, now about 55% of NIH's budget. Collins assured him that he does not expect that figure to change.
Several panel members also noted that NIH wants to boost NCATS's budget by $64 million (to $639 million) while cutting $51 million from the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) that help states become stronger competitors for NIH research grants. Collins explained that Congress gave IDeA an extra $50 million this year, an increase that NIH views as "a much needed one time boost." The agency wants to use that money in 2013 for other priorities.
Rehberg disagreed: "We did not suggest ... that these were 1-year funds," he said. And he and several other lawmakers from IDeA states suggested that the money cut from IDeA appears to be going to NCATS. "It does cut one place and add another," said Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). Collins demurred: "Those are not the same dollars that just got moved from one box to another. This is part of a big overall plan to figure out where the scientific opportunities are most pressing," he said.