Congress Introduces Authorizing Legislation for NIH, NSF

This year two committees in the House of Representatives have drafted separate legislative packages that would establish multi-year authorizations for the NIH and NSF. (All federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), are subject to Congressional oversight in the form of authorizing legislation.) These bills are still works in progress so the summaries below reflect where things stood as of mid-May. Both bills are lengthy and cover multiple agencies so these summaries focus on the provisions most relevant to scientists in the extramural community.

NSF

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806) covers NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy Office of Science and Research programs, STEM Education programs across the federal government, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Sponsored by House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), the legislation sets funding targets for FY 2016 and 2017 and would make several significant policy changes for the NSF. It should be noted that funding levels included in authorizing bills are recommendations, while actual funding levels are set by the Appropriations Committees.

H.R. 1806 would authorize $7.6 billion for the NSF in FY 2016, an increase of 4% over the agency’s FY 2015 funding. However, it does not authorize any increase in FY 2017. The bill also specifies how much funding each of NSF’s directorates would receive. This differs from previous authorizing bills that set a budget target for the agency as a whole. While the authorized funding level for the Biological Science Directorate’s budget would increase under H.R. 1806, there would be substantial decreases for the Geoscience, Social, Behavioral and Economics, and Education and Human Resources Directorates. Many in the scientific community have expressed concern that directorate level funding authorizations would curtail NSF’s ability to set priorities based upon scientific need and may introduce politics into funding decisions.

Chairman Smith has focused heavily on oversight of NSF research in the past few years, including numerous requests for information about how funding decisions are made. This led to concerns in the scientific community about how to maintain the integrity of the peer review system while complying with Congressional oversight. Finally, a compromise was reached after extensive discussions between the Committee and NSF about how the agency should explain its portfolio. H.R. 1806 includes a provision that would require NSF officials to make a determination that each research project serves the national interest and is worthy of federal funding. There is also language stating that these requirements should not be construed as altering NSF’s review criteria regarding the intellectual merit or broader impacts of the research.

H.R. 1806 has been approved by the House Science Committee and is expected to go to the House floor in late May. While there is currently no companion bill in the Senate, a joint press release from Chairman Smith and his Senate counterpart, Senator John Thune, Chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, signaled their intention of working together this year to complete reauthorization.

NIH

For the past year the House Energy and Commerce Committee has been working on an authorization bill for the NIH and FDA with the working title the 21st Century Cures Act. (The legislation is still in draft form and has not yet been introduced.) The legislation is expected to targets for funding levels in FY 2016–2018, and will include numerous policy provisions. As previously noted, the funding levels in authorization bills are only recommendations and are subject to implementation by appropriators.

The 21st Century Cures Act is expected to authorize funding for the NIH at $31.811 billion in FY 2016 (5% over FY 15); $33.311 billion in FY 2017 (4.7% over FY 16); and $34.851 billion in FY 2018 (4.6% over FY 17). In addition, the bill will authorize the creation of an Innovation Fund for that would provide an additional $2 billion per year for FYs 2016–2020. However, these funds would only become available if the NIH baseline funding remains at or above the FY 2016 appropriated level.

The bill provides a complex allocation formula for the Innovation Fund. For example, not less than $500 million of the Innovation Fund must go to a new “Accelerating Advancement Program.” Under this new program, the NIH Director would partner with institutes and centers to “accomplish important biomedical research objectives.” The institutes and centers would also be required to use their own funds to match whatever funding they receive from this program. The remaining money in the Innovation Fund is to be distributed according to percentages rather than specified dollar amounts:

  • Research in which “a principal investigator has shown promise in biomedical research; and funding is not tied to a specific project or specific objectives.” (Not less than 35%)
  • High-risk, high-reward research (Not less than 20%)
  • Intramural research (Not more than 10%)

In addition to the areas of focus listed above, the bill notes that the Innovation Fund may be used to support innovative biomedical research in which specific projects are funded, research carried out by early stage investigators, and research carried out by small businesses.

The 21st Century Cures Act would also implement these policy changes:

  • Require NIH to prepare an agency-wide, scientifically-based strategic plan every five years that includes “strategic focus areas.” These strategic focus areas should be “identified in a manner that considers the return on investment to the United States public through the investments of the National Institutes of Health in biomedical research and contributes to the expanding knowledge to improve the United States public’s health through biomedical research.” The research strategic plan should “ensure that basic research remains a priority.”
  • Increase accountability by:
    • Limiting the term of service for institute and center (IC) directors to 5-years, subject to reappointment.
    • Requiring IC directors to “review and approve” all research grants prior to award funding, taking into consideration “the mission of the national research institute or national center and the scientific priorities identified in the strategic plan” and “whether other agencies are funding programs or projects to accomplish the same goal.”
    • Commissioning an Institute of Medicine study on “the extent to which biomedical research conducted and supported by Federal agencies is duplicative.”
  • Establish a working group to examine administrative burden associated with federally funded research.
  • Requires the NIH director to submit to Congress a report on NIH efforts to “attract, retain and develop emerging scientists.”
  • Establish a “Capstone Award” for outstanding NIH-funded scientists to “facilitate the successful transition or conclusion of research programs.” Individuals who receive a Capstone Award would not be eligible for principle investigator status on subsequent awards from the NIH.
  • Give the NIH director the authority to require NIH grant recipients to share scientific data generated by research funded by the NIH. Excluded from this provision are identifiable human subject information, trade secrets, and privileged financial information.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee expects to complete work on the legislation in late May. As of yet, no companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

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