WASHINGTON _ National Institutes of Health (NIH) DirectorHarold Varmus Wednesday asked Congress to give NIH topmanagement greater discretion in deciding which research programsto fund and to spend less time accounting for their progress toCongress.

At hearings before the Senate Labor and Human ResourcesCommittee, Varmus urged the committee to give him more authority"to make the administration and management more flexible." He alsoasked for a reduction in the number of reports the NIH must submitto Congress, reports that all have funding strings attached.

Additional details on the Clinton administration's position on NIH re-authorization legislation will become available in the next few weeks,Varmus said. He said the administration wants similar authorizinglegislation for all centers and institutes, including the National Centerfor Human Genome Research. The administration also wants toextend the authorization of the Office of AIDS Research to"guarantee that NIH has the flexibility to respond immediately to themany promising new avenues of research that will help us fightsAIDS," Varmus said.

The Senate committee opened hearings on what promises to be amonths-long process to determine how the NIH's funding prioritiesshould be shifted and management of its $11.9 billion budget can beimproved. NIH programs are authorized under several titles of thePublic Health Service Act.

Committee chairwoman Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) extolled theNIH for its research but also promised the agency that the Senatewould be examining financial issues. "In these times of financialconstraint, the NIH . . . must be diligent in its efforts to become moreefficient. At the NIH, every dollar saved by administrative efficiencygenerates another dollar for research," she said.

NIH dodged the bullet on massive budget rollbacks last year (seeBioWorld Today, July 7, 1995, p. 1), thanks to having friends in highplaces. NIH had to accept only a 1 percent rollback because a strongfederal biomedical research budget was backed by SenateAppropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) andHouse Labor Health and Human Services AppropriationsSubcommittee Chairman John Porter (R.-Ill.).

Varmus earlier confronted the issue of a static NIH budget in anessay published in the New England Journal of Medicine. (SeeBioWorld Today, Sept. 22, 1995, p. 1.) In the prestigious ShattuckLecture delivered to the annual meeting of the MassachusettsMedical Society, Varmus said recent budget battles had convincedhim that "the government and the public should find a secure stablebase for the NIH. It should provide the agency with a guaranteedbudget "not less than that of the previous year with an inflationaryincrement determined on the basis of the ratio of inflation in medicalresearch and development."

That goal appeared lofty to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). "There will be apolitical struggle to determine how resources are allocated within theNIH budget," he told Varmus. Coats advised him to consult thepriority setting model used by the Defense Department as it shrinks inlight of cold war budget realities. n

-- Michele L. Robinson Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.