On August 23, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held an oversight hearing featuring leadership from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The hearing, Prioritizing Cures: Science and Stewardship at the National Institutes of Health, was chaired by HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and included testimony from NIH Director Francis Collins. Dr. Collins was joined by Diana Bianchi, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); Richard Hodes, National Institute on Aging (NIA); and Norman Sharpless, National Cancer Institute (NCI). A similar hearing was held in the House in July.
In his opening statement, Chairman Alexander acknowledged the continued enthusiastic, bipartisan support for NIH, evidenced by the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016 and by substantial budgetary increases provided to the agency over the last four years (see COSSA’s funding analysis for details). He further stated, “It’s hard to think of a major scientific advancement since World War II that has not been supported by federal research funding. But we’re not the only country that’s figured that out. Other countries have seen that investments in basic research can lead to breathtaking new discoveries,” pointing specifically to China.
Chairman Alexander raised concern about reports that some federally funded research is being conducted by “bad actor” foreign nationals who may be trying to assert undue foreign influence on NIH research. Dr. Collins explained that through an internal investigation, NIH found that the risks to the security of intellectual property and the integrity of the peer review process are increasing in magnitude. In response, Dr. Collins recently wrote to 10,000 NIH grantee institutions requesting that they “review their records for evidence of malfeasance,” specifically: (1) failure by researchers to disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations, including foreign governments; (2) diversion of intellectual property to other entities, including foreign governments; and (3) failure by some peer reviewers to keep grant applications confidential or other attempts to influence funding decisions. In addition, Dr. Collins has formed a Working Group on Foreign Influences on Research Integrity, which will continue to look at these challenges.
Dr. Collins used his prepared remarks to highlight NIH advancements made possible with the infusion of new funds from the 21st Century Cures Act. He outlined what he called the five keys to success in science today. They include: (1) a stable trajectory of support (i.e. funding); (2) a vibrant workforce (e.g. training programs); (3) computational power, which is enabling activities like the BRAIN initiative and the All of Us Precision Medicine Initiative; (4) new technologies and facilities; and (5) scientific inspiration.
Of particular interest to the social and behavioral science community, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) asked about whether our society is becoming addicted to technology and about the public health effects of social networking, citing findings from a recent study on daily use of technology and social media among teens (Psychology of Popular Media Culture, APA). Senator Bennet called for more priority to be placed on research in these areas and asked what NIH is doing in this space. Dr. Collins cited the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which will follow 10,000 children ages 9-10 into early adulthood, studying brain, social, cognitive and emotional development and the factors that influence them. The issue of “screen time” is among the factors to be studied. In addition, Dr. Bianchi mentioned a recent NICHD workshop looking at new research directions in these areas, including early childhood language development, reading comprehension, parent-child interactions, and technology addiction.
Other Senators asked questions on a variety of specific diseases and topics of interest to them, including opioid and other addictions, the societal costs of obesity, development of a universal flu vaccine, maternal health, and bolstering researchers from underrepresented groups.
Dr. Collins’ testimony and a video of the hearing can be found on the HELP Committee website.