The US Committee on Appropriations met with the top directors of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday for their annual briefing on the advances in biomedical research. The oversight hearing offers members of Congress an insight into the current research projects of the NIH and any issues that need to be addressed.

The Committee was chaired by Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04), who was named Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labour, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies in January. The NIH was represented by its Director, Dr. Francis Collins, and the Directors for five of the NIH’s Institutions: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Gary Gibbons, Dr. Joshua Gordon, Dr. Doug Lowy, and Dr. Nora Volkow.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first topics the Committee touched on was the changes in funding proposed to the NIH budget. While the NIH largely enjoys bipartisan support within the government, the proposed – and later rejected – budget from the Trump Administration that would see funding decreased by 24%. Even though the budget was not passed, it has raised concerns about the approach the current administration intends to take towards biomedical research.

In particular, the Committee and the NIH’s panel discussed the proposed dissolution of the Fogarty International Centre, which is aimed at tackling health crises outside of the United States. Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was especially vocal about the necessity of the centre to ensure the good health of US citizens.

In general, the Committee and the panel enjoyed shared opinions. The first moment of apparent confrontation came from Committee member Congressman Andy Harris (MD-01) when he grilled Dr. Collins on ‘indirect costs’ (at 1:20:20 in the video above, if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing!). These costs were the centre of much debate recently when the Trump Administration’s budget called for them to be slashed as part of their proposed cuts. Mr. Harris’ concern was that while an NIH grant had a 50% overhead cost rate, other financial contributors to research were paying at most 12%.

Dr. Collin’s explanation was that research organisations could afford these decreased overhead rates because such grants only made up a very small proportion of their total input. If the balance shifted to make these grants the majority, the organisations would be unable to cover the cost of research. However, he also acknowledged that there was a conversation that needed to be had surrounding both indirect costs and what he termed ‘bureaucracy’ in these institutions in the near future.

The hearing also touched on the drug abuse epidemic (1:12:20), youth suicide (1:33:20), the safety and cost of laboratory chimpanzees (1:30:15), and the risks of the H7N9 flus strain in China transferring to humans (1:45:40), among a range of other topics. Happy listening!

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