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Optimism in the air

Dear Research Advocate:

Big news: it appears a Labor-H/Defense appropriations “conference report” (i.e. final bill) will clear Congress and reach the President’s desk before the September 30 deadline. Earlier this week, we sent a letter urging conferees Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to push for the highest funding levels possible for NIH, CDC, AHRQ and CDMRP given the boundaries set by the House and Senate versions of the legislation. This just in: a summary of the conference report.  A preliminary read (emphasis on “preliminary”) indicates that the conferees did indeed opt for favorable funding levels for NIH, CDC, AHRQ and CDMRP, with a $2 billion increase for NIH and net increases for each of the other agencies/programs as well.

While the full text is not yet available, the Labor-H/Defense conference report will reportedly be combined with a continuing resolution (CR) through December 7 that will cover any unfinished appropriations measures. As of this writing, the CJS (where NSF is housed) and Agriculture (FDA) appropriations bills could both be subjected to this CR, which, unfortunately, means several months of flat funding. It is important to note, though, that Congress can pass the rest of these bills before the CR expires, and that is indeed what we — and I hope you — will be advocating.

One of many reasons to do so: deadly and debilitating diseases demand unrelenting — not CR-compromised — progress.  In a week that featured new reports on the growing incidence of cancer, it was a breath of fresh air to attend the Dr. Paul Janssen Award ceremony in New York City last evening. Dr. James Allison, the basic scientist who persevered against naysayers to demonstrate that the body’s own immune system can be put to work to overcome cancer, deserves every prize in the book (by the way, tune in to Nobel announcements in just a few weeks). A moving video tribute from a melanoma patient, as well as an in-person account from journalist Mary Elizabeth Williams, brought Dr. Allison— and everyone else in the room — to tears. I can’t wait to read Salon journalist and cancer survivor Williams’ book, A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer.

During last week’s National Health Research Forum, the unscripted combination of ‘straight talk’ — one panelist asserted that America doesn’t do collaboration without incentives — with optimism (e.g. science beat HIV/AIDS and will beat the opioid epidemic) was striking. Greg Simon, President of the Biden Cancer Initiative, offered thought-provoking suggestions for stimulating faster medical progress, like incorporating a DARPA-like function into the NIH intramural program. Dr. Mikael Dolsten, President, Worldwide Research & Development, Pfizer, and Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President, Global Health, BD spoke urgently of the dangerously underestimated challenge of antimicrobial resistance. (Tomorrow, the FDA is hosting a webinar on the agency’s five year plan to combat this daunting public health threat.)

Also at the forum, NIH Director Francis Collins and NSF Director France Cordova joined other experts to discuss a broad range of brain research topics. They expressed optimism, but pulled no punches in addressing pitfalls like innovation-stifling “group-think.” In a crisp call to action, Janssen’s Husseini Manji said “it’s time to ‘elevate brain health to the level of heart health.”  CDC Director Robert Redfield, addressing the opioid crisis as part of a panel discussion focused on solution-elusive medical and public health challenges, reminded us that we face societal, as well as scientific, obstacles to progress, noting that “stigma is the enemy of public health.”

During the forum’s closing discussion with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Research!America board member Susan Dentzer, the Secretary said: “Research and evidence is fundamental to everything we [at HHS] do…” He also said that it’s time to “normalize” drug pricing, while emphasizing the importance of retaining incentives to drive US innovation. Read a recap of the program here or watch it again.  

Please join us tomorrow for a Research!America alliance member meeting and call at 11:00am ET at Horizon Government Relations. We’ll share notes on appropriations and other current issues, and Joel White and Catherine Pugh of Health IT Now will join us to discuss a proposal for modifying the HIPAA law to encourage more data sharing for research purposes. Please RSVP to jlagoy@researchamerica.org and we will get the meeting/call information to you.



Mary Woolley