ASCB Proposals Included in Senate NIH Report

Congress’s how-to manual for funding federal agencies says that one set of Congressional committees (authorizers) provides oversight and guidance on an agency’s programs and policies and another set of committees (appropriators) provides the funding necessary to operate the programs. It is assumed that the authorizers have the knowledge of how the programs should work and can provide long-range direction for the individual programs. The appropriators are supposed to just write the checks.

That’s at least how it is supposed to work. In reality, the appropriators have to make sure the government stays open by funding each agency every year. Authorizers have the luxury of pondering and studying the long-term direction of an agency, regardless of deadlines. The Defense Department is the only federal agency that has its authorization bill passed regularly.

So, when an authorizing committee even suggests that it might be seriously considering writing and passing an authorizing bill, the communities connected with that agency drop everything.

Such was the case last fall, when U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R- LA), who is currently the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), which is the authorizer for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), sent a letter to members of the NIH community asking for “input on modernizing the National Institutes of Health (NIH)” groups across Washington, DC jumped at the chance. Cassidy’s request was not coming from just any Senator, he could be the next chair of the HELP Committee.

In the ASCB’s reply to Senator Cassidy, the society focused on three important subjects:  

  1. the importance of fundamental research in the NIH research pipeline for both the health and economic competitiveness of the United States,
  2. the challenges facing the next generation of biomedical researchers and
  3. the international nature of science and the significance of contributions by foreign-born scientists to the U.S. biomedical research enterprise.

Senator Cassidy heard – and agrees with – the points made by the ASCB and others. In the white paper, the very first issue he addresses is the need to have a balanced funding portfolio, beginning with fundamental research. The report highlights the concern of many “that NIH’s focus on translational and clinical research will come at the expense of investigator-initiated, basic science, the historic heart of NIH’s business model” and warns that, “a waning federal focus on basic research could lead to a decline in treatments and cures eventually developed through private funding.”

The Cassidy report also recognizes that despite a significant investment in fellowships and training programs and STEM, the system that has been created is better for some members of the community than it is for others.

This report is but the first step in a very long legislative journey. The clearest path ahead for Senator Cassidy and his reauthorization bill would be for Republicans to gain control of the Senate this coming November. As committee chair, Cassidy would have complete control of the HELP Committee legislative agenda.

Regardless of the path he takes, there will be nothing easy about reauthorizing a complicated federal agency like the NIH. 

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: