WASHINGTON — Young scientists entering biomedical research find themselves in the worst financial environment in half a century, the head of the National Institutes of Health says.
In an appearance before the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Dr. Francis Collins offered a familiar warning to lawmakers considering future appropriations for scientific research. Investments are falling relative to inflation, he said, forcing changes likely to snowball into the future.
“Given international trends,” Collins said, citing a recent article in the medical journal JAMA, “the United States will relinquish its historical international lead in biomedical research in the next decade unless certain measures are undertaken.”
Collins warned that these trends would convince a future generation of researchers that their field was inhospitable. Fewer young scientists would mean fewer scientific discoveries, making it more difficult for companies to profit and for public health authorities to guard against diseases.
“This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States,” Collins said. “They are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, ‘Do we really want to sign up for that?’ And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away.”
Sobering budgetary assessments are nothing new from Collins, who heads the federal government’s main funder of biomedical research. He has been preaching the need for stable NIH budgeting for years, and has amplified those warnings since the spending cuts brought about by sequestration went into effect in 2013. NIH has lost about 22 percent of its purchasing power since 2003. In fiscal 2014, it was appropriated $30.1 billion.
A two-year bipartisan budget agreement brought a temporary reprieve. But that agreement runs out in September.
Collins’ appearance in the House on Tuesday is likely the first prong in a months-long campaign arguing that the days of sequestration shouldn’t return. The budget situation for NIH, like every other federal agency, is uncertain come September. Under current law, non-defense discretionary spending would be $493 billion in fiscal 2016, up just $1 billion from fiscal 2015., according to a document put together by House Democrats. Without a change, appropriators will have little discretion to provide more funding. If they did increase the NIH budget, it would come at the harm of other domestic programs.
A recent report by the group United for Medical Research made clear the high stakes of stagnant scientific research funding. Compared with countries that have “made long-term commitments to increase their support of biomedical sciences,” the report said, federal funding cuts are leading to “an erosion of America’s preeminence in biomedicine.”
“China is filing more patents in biomedicine than the U.S. — not just as a portion of GDP, but absolutely more patents,” Collins said. “And the consequences, I think you can imagine, are going to be significant.”
Members of Congress from both parties have tried innovations to funnel funds to NIH. Proposals have included creating an incentive fund to encourage appropriators to make steady financial commitments; a biomedical research private-public bank; to remove the NIH from the discretionary budget; to generate money by penalizing big pharmaceutical companies that break the law; and to certify that the sequester no longer applies to NIH.
None of these have gained significant traction in the new Congress, where some conservative members have criticized NIH for funding quixotic-sounding projects at the expense of critical short-term needs.
Collins wasn’t asked about this critique (though in the past, he has argued that science funding decisions are best made through peer review and that even funny-sounding ideas may bear great fruit). He also didn’t address any new funding proposals during his two-hour appearance on Tuesday morning. Instead, he offered a broad pitch for lawmakers to fund NIH in a way that “that keeps up with inflation, plus a little bit.”
The reception he received underscores the difficulty and frustration of his objective.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) called the hearing “the most popular panel we will see all session long.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called for a “group hug” among attendees. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the discussion was “so very exciting” and happily offered enthusiasm for doubling NIH funding, which happened during the Clinton and Bush administrations. And Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) noted that, “the bipartisan nature of this subject with this committee is pretty obvious.”
Then Simpson delivered a bitter pill. Everyone on the committee would like to “substantially increase the research we’re doing,” he said, “if we didn’t have an $18 trillion debt and $500 billion deficit that we are having to deal with at the same time, which makes it more difficult.”