Scrutiny on spending at the National Institutes of Health increasing

Science advocacy groups, such as the ASBMB, urge Congress to increase the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and other research-funding agencies to continue our national investment in groundbreaking research that will improve the public health and energize our economy. However, some members of Congress have begun to turn the tables suggesting that research funding agencies could fund more research if they were smarter with how they invested their money. The debate, though, is what qualifies as a smart investment.

At the beginning of March, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that sets the NIH budget, sent a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins expressing concern about several grants funded by the agency. The funding of these grants are purported to break rules against using federal grant money for lobbying efforts. The legislators argue that the NIH should act within the rules and use this grant money for funding research into various diseases. The larger argument behind this story, though, is whether the NIH or any other federal agency should be funding research into the social sciences. ASBMB has always opposed Congressional micromanagement of the funding portfolios of research-funding agencies, and surely the NIH will resist any additional Congressional oversight. However, since the line of questioning from Congress focuses on the rules governing the agency, the NIH must carefully toe the line between adhering to these rules and defending the funding of this research.

Recruiting and outreach activities from all parts of the government have received serious questions from Congress, and now the NIH’s communications activities have also drawn the attention of several House members. Three members of the Energy and Commerce: Health subcommittee, which has oversight of NIH activities, and two members of the appropriations subcommittee that sets the NIH budget have signed onto a letter asking Collins to investigate how much money each institute and center spends on communications and public relations. This request stems from a report suggesting the National Cancer Institute spends far more money on PR initiatives than any other institute at the NIH. The legislators again argue that agencies should divert these dollars toward disease-related research. The issue is not whether the NCI should have outreach programs, they are actually obligated to by law, but the amount of money spent on these efforts. ASBMB supports the outreach and education activities of NIH institutes and centers as they effectively disseminate information about the excellent work they are funding and the strides being made on behalf of the American taxpayer. We also support each institute and center finding its own balance between funding research and outreach activities, and we would oppose any Congressional micromanagement of spending of this sort at the NIH.

Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter to stay up to date on these and other stories concerning Congressional oversight of the NIH and other science policy issues.

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2 thoughts on “Scrutiny on spending at the National Institutes of Health increasing

  1. I am curious to know what percent of their budget does NCI spend on PR? If NCI receives the lion’s share of funding compared to other institutes, then it would make sense their PR budget is higher. If I remember correctly, the NCI budget for FY2012 is 5 billion and if PR spend 45 million, then that is less than 1%. I many not be a budget director but that seems like a pretty small amount.

    • David – As the report we link states, the NCI employs roughly 160 people to work on its PR activities. The next largest PR group is at the Office of the Director, which employs 20 people. The number of people alone drive up the cost of NCI’s PR activities. It’s when the NCI is compared to the rest of the NIH that the amount looks out of proportion. This is the reason for the scrutiny. We do not believe there is any correct dollar or percentage amount NCI or any other office should spend, as long as they spend it efficiently to achieve the goals of the institute.

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