House Approves Symbolic Attacks on NIH Grants

Note: This article was originally published on September 13, 2004. We’ve reposted it from COSSA’s archives due to its resonance with today’s climate in Congress.

When a Federal agency has its budget doubled in five years, its expenditures attract a great deal of attention.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been a “most favored” agency for many years.  In the eyes of many of its supporters on Capitol Hill, the research it funds saves lives, including in some cases, their own.  Thus, from 1998 to 2003 NIH’s budget grew from $13 billion to over $27 billion.

NIH uses an elaborate system of peer review to choose its successful grantees.  From time to time, Members of Congress wonder about the efficacy of the peer review system.  They clearly believe that Members, especially those on the appropriations committees, have the right to determine how federal money is spent, even at the individual grant level. Thus, on many spending bills, they simply earmark funds for specific projects.

Last year, during consideration of the NIH FY 2004 budget as part of the Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced an amendment to defund five approved NIH grants because he didn’t think that research on sexual behavior and health was a proper area in which to fund NIH studies.  The House defeated the Toomey amendment by two votes.

On September 9, the Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill once again came to the House floor.  This time, a member who came to the Congress in a special election in 2003, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), decided to attack the NIH peer review process and sponsored an amendment to prohibit further funding for two grants.  The two, supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, included a University of Missouri study that examined the mental and physical health benefits of focusing on positive life goals through journal writing.  The study aimed to determine if self-help tools can alleviate depression.  The second study, conducted by a University of Texas at Austin researcher, also focused on depression, particularly among college students, by assessing how physical and virtual environments that individuals choose for themselves can convey psychological disorders.

Neugebauer and his allies, Reps. Mike Spence (R-IN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), mocked the studies and indicated that the money could be better spent on other “more serious” mental health issues.   During the debate, Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-MO), whose district includes the University of Missouri, strongly defended the study and the principal investigator, Laura King, who has won numerous awards, including the Templeton prize in positive psychology.  He scolded Neugebauer for portraying the studies “in a simplistic way.”  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) defended the University of Texas study, conducted by Samuel Gosling. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging defeat of the amendment.

The irony of the whole debate is that both studies have been completed.  No FY 2005 NIH funds are going to be spent on them.  For that reason, Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH), who in an earlier letter with House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), urged colleagues to discuss their problems with individual grants with NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, took a nonchalant attitude toward the Neugebauer amendment.  He decided not to oppose it, while at the same time suggesting that NIH “ought to be cautious about what type of grants they fund.”  The Neugebauer amendment passed by voice vote, with very few Members on the House floor.  If this had been a court case, it would have been thrown out because the issue was moot.  Yet, as Hulshof pointed out, the amendment allowed Neugebauer to attain some publicity for his re-election contest against Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-TX) in one of the new Texas districts where incumbents have been thrown together.

This somewhat anti-climactic denouement hid an enormous amount of work done by the Coalition to Protect Research (CPR), co-chaired by Angela Sharpe of COSSA and Karen Studwell of the American  Psychological Association.  The Coalition, consisting of 58 groups across the wide spectrum of NIH supporters, provided Congress with huge amounts of information about the peer review process, NIH’s role in supporting research on biomedical and behavioral aspects of health, and convinced Members not to attack NIH again over its funding of sexual behavior and health grants.

The House subsequently approved the bill.  The Senate has yet to take up the Labor, HHS, Education funding legislation. It is widely expected that the bill will not pass as regular legislation, but will either be part of a Continuing Resolution or wrapped into an Omnibus spending bill that will likely pass in a lame-duck session.

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