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U.S. Congressional panel explores NIH funding priorities
  By Julie Rovner
WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - Officials of the National Institutes of Health, already under fire for alleged conflicts of interest by some of its scientists, on Wednesday found themselves defending the process by which they decide how to apportion the agency's $28 billion annual budget.
"NIH's priority-setting process has drawn questions, God knows, from members of Congress," U.S. House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., said at a panel hearing. If Congress is to adequately fund the agency, Bilirakis said, "we need to understand how they choose what research to conduct and how they fund that research."
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who lectured NIH Director Elias Zerhouni for failing to devote adequate resources to study Duchenne muscular dystrophy, as ordered by Congress in a 2001 law, warned that scientists need to respond to the needs of the taxpaying public. "If the public loses confidence in NIH, then it doesn't matter how the Institutes set their priorities; Congress will be unable to secure the funding needed to sustain this crucial agency," Brown said.
But other panel members warned that Congress should interfere less with the process by which NIH decides what to study. For members of Congress "to substitute our own scientific judgment" for that of NIH leaders, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., "is a very perilous activity."
Both Waxman and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., singled out criticism by some conservative Republican members of Congress of several NIH studies of sexual behavior as inappropriate. "Some people do engage in self-destructive behavior," Capps said, "but we cannot pretend it does not exist," and NIH should study why people do self-destructive things if they are to be prevented in the future.
Dr. Zerhouni, for his part, walked the panel through the complicated set of procedures by which NIH sets its priorities, taking into account the social burden of particular ailments as well as the state of science and the likelihood that research funding will lead to concrete discoveries.
For example, he said, NIH cannot simply sponsor numerous clinical trials to try to find cures or treatments for diseases without first conducting underlying research. "You can't translate a language you do not understand all that well," he said.
But Dr. Zerhouni added that the agency can and does reset priorities when situations warrant. Funding for bioterror-related activities has dramatically increased since the U.S. anthrax attacks in 2001, he said, while just last year, NIH increased funding for obesity research across several institutes by 10%.
And National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said NIH "needs to do a better job working with our industrial partners" to develop new antibiotics and vaccines in particular.


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