Policy Points: from the farm to the moon
Following the much appreciated budget increases for scientific agencies in December, science and health advocates alike were ecstatic at the mention of a “cancer moonshot” in President Obama’s final State of the Union Address to the House of Representatives. It is reported that the White House plans to request $755 million for cancer research funding as a part of the larger, $1 billion ask to fund the entire initiative in fiscal year (FY) 2017. Where those funds will go remains to be seen, however the first meeting of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, with Vice President Biden at the helm, took place this week with 13 agencies represented—including the NSF and NIH. It seems likely that the National Cancer Institute will be the largest recipient of any such budget increase at the NIH, and it was the only Institute within an agency explicitly named as a task force member.
Speaking of NIH, the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) held an Advisory Council Meeting last week, where innovative funding and data took center stage. Director Jon Lorsch, reported the progress of the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) Pilot. MIRA was launched to provide a stable funding source for an investigator’s entire research program, rather than a per project basis. An analysis of the initial MIRA applicant pool suggested that approximately 25% of those eligible to apply in this first round submitted a MIRA proposal, and the applicant pool was similarly diverse in gender and race/ethnicity, as compared with the pool. Lorsch suggested that NIGMS would be issuing new funding opportunity announcements for MIRA in the near future with the expectation that the program would be available to all NIGMS investigators within the next year or so.
As part of the omnibus appropriations bills for FY 2016, NIGMS is receiving nearly 6% in additional funding over the previous year. To ensure that this additional support does not cause a one-year peak in funding that cannot be sustained, NIGMS is proposing to fund several short-term priorities in addition to bolstering multi-year R01s and the like; for example, the institute may provide equipment supplements or offer 1–2 awards to help promising but risky applications collect preliminary data.
Assessments of the National Centers for Systems Biology, NIGMS MERIT, and Program Project Awards were presented to the council. No decision was made, but there could be some changes on the horizon as some existing mechanisms may be eclipsed by new funding mechanisms that are currently in the pilot phase.
The council approved a pilot for a new technology development funding mechanism, which separates technology development into early and late phases. The early phase mechanism is a two year, $250,000 investment that is intended to be high risk, requiring no preliminary data or need to apply the technique to a biological question. The late phase mechanism would be a 3–5 year award with no budget cap, where preliminary data exists with functioning prototypes available for the first biomedical application. These funding solutions come after the NIGMS requested input from the scientific community on how it should consider “the biomedical technology research and development space at all stages, from exploratory to mature.” GSA responded to this request, stating that “NIGMS is in a strong position to provide leadership in this area because it already supports a diverse array of foundational work across many disciplines. This institute should therefore invest sufficient resources in technology development to ensure that this critical field continues to thrive.” We expect this new program to provide the support necessary to move far-reaching technology ideas to tangible tools for basic research.
Science & Engineering Indicators
Last month at the National Science Foundation, the National Science Board released the 2016 volume of its Science and Engineering Indicators report. This sweeping data set, presented to Congress covers science education, workforce, and public attitudes on scientific issues. Notably, the study found that only 28% of Americans think that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops; 37% think they are safe to eat. On a positive note, the GSA community should be pleased to know that strong public support for basic research funding remains steady at more than 75% (see Figure 7-14), and the percentage of people who agree that the government spends too little for scientific research continues to increase (see Figure 7-15). The full report can be found here.
Request for agriculture research funding
Providing a preview of President Obama’s proposed budget for FY 2017, set to be unveiled next week, the US Department of Agriculture announced that the President will request $700 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) competitive grants program. This would double the program’s current funding level of $350 million. AFRI supports projects at universities and research institutes that address food safety and quality, nutrients in plants, plant growth, and antimicrobial resistance strategies. In a move toward stable funding for agricultural research, the budget includes a legislative proposal that $325 million of the total request be considered mandatory funding. This could make AFRI, which began seven years ago, a permanent funding source to support a sustained research effort to improve agriculture, food, the environment and communities.
Especially for geneticists
The gene editing conversation continues with commentary posted here and here. The National Academies of Sciences and Medicine continue their consensus study on the scientific, medical and ethical considerations of human gene editing, holding a public meeting on February 11, 2016. GSA plans to attend.
The coordinated framework for the regulation of biotechnology products (think GMOs) is being updated in a joint effort between the Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Public meetings are planned for March 9 in Dallas and March 30 at the University of California, Davis.