Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) expressed support for strong federal funding of scientific and biomedical research in a town-hall-type meeting Wednesday with Emory faculty and students, organized by the graduate student group Emory Science Advocacy Network.
Price tied a major expansion of federal funding for scientific research to reform of entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security (like this). Asked whether he could envision a large increase in the National Institutes of Health budget, comparable to the doubling in funding that occurred in the 1990s, Price replied: “In the near term, I don’t see it.”
However, a “smaller bump,” more along the lines of the $2 billion increase in NIH funding passed by Congress in December, could be more possible, he said.
Price also advocated streamlining the Food and Drug Administration’s approval processes for new antibiotics and medical devices, and giving scientists more discretion in how federal research dollars are allocated.
In a question-and-answer session, Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave urged Price to have Congress give increased attention to the problem of antibiotic resistance, in which some bacterial infections are becoming difficult to treat.
“Yes, we need more resources going into this,” Price said, going on to support a “dual track” approval process for new antibiotics.
Price expressed concerns that the United States’ role as a leader in medical innovation was waning, because of regulatory constraints that drive devices such as heart valves to be tested elsewhere first.
“We’re already losing bright minds,” he said, citing how colleagues from other surgical specialties were visiting other countries to learn new techniques.
Price, who represents parts of Cobb, Dekalb and Fulton counties, was appointed chairman of the House Budget Committee at the end of 2014, replacing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Before his election to Congress in 2004, Price was an orthopedic surgeon. He grew up and went to medical school in Michigan, and came to Georgia for his orthopedic surgery residency at Emory. He was an assistant professor at Emory and medical director of the Orthopedic Clinic at Grady Memorial Hospital, while he was a member of the State Senate.
“This is an incredibly rare and valuable opportunity to listen to and influence the thinking of one of the nation’s top policy makers on the budget,” said graduate student Joshua Lewis, president of Emory Science Advocacy Network.
Lewis noted that support for biomedical research in Congress has long been bipartisan, and it would be unfortunate to have that support become more see-saw and subject to political fluctuation.
Before taking questions, Price explained how the federal budget is dominated by mandatory spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as well as interest payments. He noted that interest payments on the national debt, at $230 billion per year, dwarf research budgets in all federal agencies combined – even at a time of low interest rates.
“Everybody that comes through my door says they need more money,” Price said. “We will not be able to do that unless we address the mandatory side of the budget.”
Biochemist Rick Kahn asked the congressman whether it would be feasible to separate the NIH budget from the rest of the Health and Human Services budget.
“Sure, it’s possible, but I’m not sure you want to do that,” Price said. He continued, saying that he wanted his fellow politicians to have a lighter touch in steering research dollars to one disease or area of medicine vs another, and that the long-standing NIH set-aside for HIV/AIDS lasted too long before its elimination last year.
Alessandra Salgueiro, a graduate student in cancer biology, asked Price about the most effective ways to contact members of Congress on policy issues. What tends not to work are formal letters sent to Washington DC, he suggested. But face-to-face appointments, especially at his offices in Georgia, are better, he said.
“For many things, the person that is really important for you to see is my health advisor, because that’s the person I’m going to turn to later,” he said.
Price said he was interested in a Senate proposal, a companion to the House-passed 21st Century Cures act described by geneticist Tamara Caspary (current bill here) to make it easier for scientists to apply for grants, by postponing some of the administrative hurdles until the grant is actually awarded.
“One of my passions is to get government out of the way of innovation,” he said.