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Vol. LXI, No. 1
January 9, 2009

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Budget, Boston Lab Top Meeting Agenda
ACD Hears U.S. Stimulus Package Could Spur NIH Finances

On the front page...

Prospects for Congress to augment NIH’s 2009 budget and an update on the status of a Boston biosafety lab topped the agenda at the 97th meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director on Dec. 5. With NIH operating under a continuing resolution (CR) since the beginning of fiscal year 2009 on Oct. 1 of last year and much of the nation focused on a worldwide money crunch, financial concerns at NIH were uppermost on everyone’s mind. Dr. Raynard Kington, presiding over his first ACD gathering as acting NIH director, called on NIH budget director John Bartrum to summarize the agency’s current financial picture and strategies to improve its funding outlook in the near term. Bartrum said the CR would expire Mar. 6, and that NIH was operating at the FY 2008 appropriation level until a budget is passed. NIH expects an omnibus budget by late January/early February.


  Dr. Adel Mahmoud updates the ACD on the biosafety lab at Boston University.  
  Dr. Adel Mahmoud updates the ACD on the biosafety lab at Boston University.  

“In terms of the budget, these remain interesting times,” Kington said. “There’s been substantial congressional interest in NIH that has continued at the end of the 110th Congress.”

Bartrum said the President’s 2009 budget request for NIH is equal to the FY 2008 level of $29.5 billion. The Senate version calls for about $30.3 billion or a 3 percent increase; the House wants about $30.4 billion. If either congressional measure passes, NIH’s budget would just barely meet inflation levels calculated in the biomedical research and development price index known as the BRDPI (called “bird pie”). Updated annually by the Department of Commerce, BRDPI estimates the costs of conducting medical research.

In one of 53 Capitol Hill testimonies over the last year by NIH staff covering a wide range of topics from HIV/AIDS prevention to putting public access (to research data) into practice, Kington and other NIH officials recently made a strong case for the agency to get a portion of any economic stimulus packages Congress may pass.

Catch-Up Argument Mustered

Bartrum said a bill pending in the Senate called for NIH to receive a billion dollars of the economic stimulus package. He said the House had not yet formulated a similar bill. Mid-January would probably be the earliest that any mechanism could pass.

“We made the argument that as a result of several years of flat funding and the large number of meritorious grants that we were unable to fund, we have on the table already reviewed scientifically more than 10,000 grants that we could fund very quickly within a month or two,” Kington explained. “There was a fair amount of evidence by a number of groups suggesting a direct economic impact on the community, and that it’s an important long-term investment to help [NIH] get back on track in terms of funding biomedical research for the federal government.”

Conceding that quite a few organizations are making the same argument, Kington said, “I think there was some traction acknowledging both the opportunities in the short run to have an impact on the economy but more importantly to get us on the road to catching up after the series of flat budgets have gotten us substantially below the BRDPI.”

Investment in NIH Creates Jobs

All indications are that a stimulus package will focus on infrastructure projects, Bartrum said. With its possible $1 billion slice, NIH could support about 2,500 to 2,700 grants, which translates into roughly 15,000 jobs (assuming a minimum of 6 jobs per grant). NIH will provide detailed data on the agency’s potential to help revitalize the nation’s economy—information compiled in several studies by RAND Corp. and the Department of Commerce—to ACD members for dissemination.

In discussion, ACD members offered suggestions:

  • The number of new jobs that NIH can create with the stimulus should be emphasized, noted ACD member Dr. David Botstein of Princeton University. Also, the fact that NIH is in a position to fund these grants immediately—and have grantees hiring within a month—makes NIH’s argument stronger than others vying for stimulus money.

  • NIH estimates of jobs created per grant are too conservative. Students and postdocs hired—in addition to positions directly sponsored by grants—should also be estimated, which could significantly boost NIH’s impact on local economies. “The average RO1 supports far more than 6 or 7 people,” concluded ACD member Dr. Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington.

  • The NIH-investment-equals-job-creation data should be distributed widely, beyond ACD member institutions, to universities and other academic organizations. With the economic downturn, some of these groups have instituted hiring freezes that are discouraging newly minted postdocs and other recent grads about medical research as a viable career opportunity.
ACD member Dr. Thomas Kelly of Sloan-Kettering Institute ACD member Dr. Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington

ACD members Dr. Thomas Kelly (left) of Sloan-Kettering Institute and Dr. Mary-Claire King ( right) of the University of Washington take part in discussions at the group’s recent meeting.

Lab Report Is In

Next on the meeting’s agenda was a progress report from Dr. Adel Mahmoud of Princeton, who chairs the NIH blue ribbon panel to advise on risk assessment for the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. The ACD commissioned the panel in March 2008 to investigate circumstances surrounding a newly built biocontainment facility in South Boston that NIH is funding through a BU Medical Center grant. NEIDL, as the lab is called, was slated to house biodefense and public health infectious disease research, but came under fire from neighbors who do not want high-containment pathogens studied in their community.

Mahmoud announced that the panel awarded a contract in September 2008 for a supplemental-risk study of infectious agents and scenarios that had been recommended by the ACD at its June 2008 meeting. The panel will oversee the study and report results in June 2009.

In the meantime, Mahmoud said, no biosafety-level 3 or BSL-4 research would be conducted at NEIDL while several court decisions are pending. Instead, the facility would be used for public safety, health and operations training. Also, he noted, the City of Boston has a regulation banning the use of BSL-4-containment recombinant DNA technology. NIH has received assurances from BUMC that all NEIDL research will fully comply with city regulations.

In Search of a Permanent Director

During the director’s report, Kington commented on the transition period between permanent NIH directors. He noted that former NIH budget director Richard Turman leads HHS’s transition team in the Office of the Secretary. Included among those providing guidance to a White House coordinating committee are former NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, former NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins and Prof. R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, who has served in several advisory capacities for NIH over the years.

“This is proving to be a relatively smooth transition,” Kington said, pointing out that both the incoming and outgoing administrations have made transition planning and implementation a high priority. “It really is being done in a very thoughtful and collegial way…We are cautiously optimistic that the nomination [for NIH director] will occur relatively quickly.”

Video of the full meeting is archived by date at Icon

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