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Senator Lankford Questions NIH Officials on Medical Research Efficiencies

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today participated in an Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hearing on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for the FY2018 budget. Lankford’s questioning focused on how the NIH could help the federal government increase efficiencies and reduce duplication. On June 5, Lankford joined other Senators for a meeting at NIH to discuss medical research and his support for NIH funding. 

Transcript from hearing Q&A:

Senator Lankford: I appreciate all your hospitality and the time we could spend at NIH so we could see what’s going on. We are all looking forward to quite a bit of what we saw in research and initial levels and in clinical in actually moving to the general population and getting a chance to see that. Everyone would benefit from things like universal flu vaccines, zika vaccines, AIDS vaccine, which has been progressing for a long time, getting closer and closer. Those are remarkable discoveries and will help a tremendous amount of people. What’s happening in cancer, mental health, and everything else. We very much appreciate the ongoing research as it benefits families all over the country and all over the world. Let me tap into what Senator Alexander was mentioning before about administrative cost because I want to zero in on a couple areas. Many areas have been addressed. One is how grants are done and how they’re approved. I want to talk specifically between coordination. When I talked to grant recipients, they will tell me, “I go apply NSF and I apply NIH and I apply anywhere else where I think is close,” and they’re just going after money wherever they can get it to be able to do their research. It is up to the entities to be able to determine we’ve got this one, you shouldn’t take this one, this is close to what we’re going to do. An example I’ll give you is when we give law enforcement, they can tell you the lane the DEA has, the ATF has, that FBI have. They know that’s not ours, that’s theirs. In the research area, that’s a little tougher to do. So what I’m trying to figure out, not from the grant receipts, they’re eager to go get the grant money wherever they can get it. From our end, how do we help coordinate that to make sure that we do have good have good coordination that we’re not doubling up on research in other areas, but that we’re prioritizing that and then how do we actually get more research done by reducing the administrative cost? If 40 percent of the costs of what’s happening with the research dollars are just paperwork that’s being completed, that’s not helping us get to greater discovery. So, what can we do to simplify the process on the research and reduce the burden for the researcher but also make sure that we’re coordinating from a federal level?

Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. Director, National Institutes of Health: Senator, those are 2 great questions. So first, this is in terms of reducing the administrative burden, we’re very intensely interested in looking at ways that might be achieved. Senator Alexander already mentioned this 42% number that came out of the National Academy Study. I should point out that 22% of that may be the part that we really want the investigators to do, because that’s writing the grant proposal making sure they’ve got great science ideas and they’re putting forward plus giving us annual progress reports, so we know what they’re actually doing. That still leaves a whole lot of other time and we have some levers that we can pull at NIH and I try to reduce some of those things, effort reporting for instance. Or some of the oversight of conflict of interest, although we need to pay attention to that but some of those levers we don’t hold and that would require some other discussion to see if there’s other ways to systematically to do those reductions.

Senator Lankford: How do we discover those so we can help in that?

Dr. Collins: I think it would be fine for you all to ask us to give you a summary of what the current administrative responsibilities are and where those are decided. We have a pretty good list of those if that would be useful.

Senator Lankford: Terrific, I think that would be very useful and helpful, not only this committee but help others included.

Dr. Collins: The National Academy recently published a report on this, you’ve referred to it already it goes through a good deal that information is well but it’s a bit lengthy. We could consolidate it if that would be helpful.

Senator Lankford: Not to increase your administrative burden while we increase others. We need the help.

Dr. Collins: In terms of the very real concern about not having duplication between different funding agencies, we are worried about that and doing everything we can to try and nip it in the bud, if it’s starting to happen. We also have much better tools now for doing analytics of what’s in our portfolio and what’s in the of the National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense’s medical research efforts or the Department of Energy’s efforts. And we are looking at those with increasing intensity now to be able to identify if there are unintended duplications. Sometimes it’s good to have some efforts going on in different ways. Certainly, within NSF we have a lot of areas where we specifically coordinate the brain initiative for instance. NSF, NIH, and DARPA and a few other organizations have a big roll and we are meeting regularly with them to be sure that’s going the way it’s supposed to. Some other areas we have a pretty good swim lane definition, take genomics and NSF does plants and the USDA does agricultural plants and animals and NIH does those are relevant to human health and we keep pretty good tabs on those things but we do ask every investigator when they send us a grant, they have to list their other support. If we give them the grant, we have to look at that and make sure that what they put there doesn’t sound awfully familiar to what they’re asking us to do and we will go and ask them very carefully if that’s the case. So, I think for the most part we don’t have a lot of unintended overlaps, but I think these new tools that we developed may be an opportunity to do an even better job at that and I would love to follow up with you on that.

Senator Lankford: And our grant recipients have to list where they’re getting their funding, but for simultaneously applying for other areas, that’s the area that I see is the weak spot in that and there has to be some way to coordinate to say, we’ve got this part, you’ve got this part of it, and we’ve got to figure out whose got what lane, because we need all the research done efficiently.