NIH Facing New Pressures; Proposed Roadmap in Doubt

Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

NIH Facing New Pressures; Proposed Roadmap in Doubt


The House and Senate committees charged with overseeing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a joint hearing in October that highlighted both the management challenges facing the research agency and the political challenges facing members of Congress as they seek to address those issues.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled the hearing two days after NIH Director Elias Zerhouni unveiled a new roadmap for biomedical research designed to maximize opportunities and bridge gaps unlikely to be addressed under NIH's current decentralized structure. The plan proposed a series of new initiatives to encourage cross-disciplinary research involving multiple institutes, some of which the agency has already begun to implement. At the hearing, Zerhouni made it clear that some elements of the plan call for strengthening the office of the director by providing greater authority over the agency's budget and a more centralized planning mechanism.

The hearing was held amid increasing calls for Congress to step up its oversight of the agency after doubling its budget to about $28 billion during the past six years. In addition to providing Zerhouni an opportunity to present his proposals, the hearing served as a warning that his planned roadmap could encounter some rugged terrain on Capitol Hill. Committee members are contemplating the first reauthorization of NIH since 1993, and a plethora of obstacles could get in the way, from partisan politics to contentious ethical issues, to the complex web of patient groups and research institutions with a stake in the outcome.

One such issue, which has recently garnered much attention, is an attempt by conservatives in the House to prevent NIH from funding certain studies that involve behavioral research relevant to drug abuse and HIV/AIDS transmission. Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) proposed an amendment to the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill in July that would have blocked funding for four such studies that had already been approved through NIH's peer review process. The amendment failed by a vote of 212 to 210. Three of its backers raised the issue with Zerhouni at the hearing.

Further controversy ensued when an Energy and Commerce staff member provided NIH with a list of more than 200 grants that had been deemed questionable by the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. NIH began contacting recipients of these grants, apparently to request information to help defend the research. But this prompted an outcry from scientific organizations, which expressed concern that such an action would undermine the peer review process and could deter researchers from pursuing projects similar to those targeted. …

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