Will Congress set back fetal tissue research?; Congress poised to reject Trump cuts to NIH, NSF budgets

Will Congress Set Back Fetal Tissue Research?

In the weeks before Congress adjourned for its August recess, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations lit the fuse to a legislative bomb. It didn’t make the news, it wasn’t tweeted, and most people on Capitol Hill didn’t know it happened. However, if the fuse isn’t put out, the results could be catastrophic for cutting-edge biomedical research in the United States.

During the House’s debate on the FY18 funding bill for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), a provision prohibiting federally funded fetal tissue research was added. When research advocates, including the ASCB, checked in with the Senate Appropriations Committee to see if it would follow the lead of the House, they learned that it was likely that the Senate would impose even wider research bans or restrictions on fetal tissue research, stem cell research, and possibly research using human chimeras.

ASCB and a small group of other organizations spent the month of August educating Senate Appropriations Committee staff about the importance of these areas of research, trying to head off bans and restrictions.

Within days of returning to Washington from its August recess, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee met to debate and approve its version of the NIH funding bill. The bill it approved is much less explosive. According to the report accompanying the Senate bill, instead of banning fetal tissue research the bill directs the NIH “to begin a pilot to determine the adequacy of a fetal tissue donor network for supporting all related clinical research from human fetal tissue donated solely from stillbirths and spontaneous abortion.” And instead of banning or placing restrictions on federally funded research using embryonic stem cells, the Senate report endorses research with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), encouraging the NIH to “support basic research in this area that leads to pre-clinical trials, cures, diagnostics, and treatments.” It is the thinking of the committee that if iPSCs can be proven to be effective, they would be able to replace embryonic stem cells.

Congress is famous for calling for studies about controversial issues. It is, in fact, a time-honored solution to policy problems that can’t be solved otherwise. But the problem, first created by the House, is far from resolved. The FY18 budget will most likely be approved in one huge bill at the very last minute and outside the normal, predictable budget process. It is this unpredictability between now and December that will play a big role in determining if there is a ban or a couple of studies. The ASCB staff will continue to work to make sure there is no ban.

Congress Poised to Reject Trump Cuts to NIH, NSF Budgets

Two days after returning from its August recess, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a FY18 budget for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Unlike the Trump administration’s request for an 18% cut to the NIH, the budget approved by the committee includes an increase of more than 5%. If this increase becomes law, it will be the third year in a row that the NIH has received a $2 billion increase.

In particular, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, slated for a cut of almost half a billion dollars under the Trump budget, would receive a $237 million increase in the Senate budget.

Earlier in the summer, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee approved a $1.1 billion increase. At the time, however, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), chair of the House subcommittee that funds the NIH, said he hoped the $1.1 billion would serve as a floor for future negotiations with the Senate on a final NIH budget.

Congress also has been working on the FY18 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives approved a $7.3 billion budget for the NSF, only $133 million less than the NSF’s FY17 budget. The Senate approved a similar budget, only $155 million below the FY17 budget. Both budgets are significantly higher than that proposed by the Trump administration, which called for a 10% cut.

The final three months of 2018 will be critical in determining the fate of the FY18 budget for the NIH, NSF, and the entire federal budget. Congress has passed a Continuing Resolution until December. At some point before, or most likely in, December, Congress and the White House may have to reach agreement on a FY18 federal budget, increasing the federal debt limit, and hurricane relief funding, among other contentious areas.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: kwilson@ascb.org