The blessing and curse
of legislating science

Legislation that affects scientific research is often met with a great deal of anxiety from the scientific community. Surely the research enterprise has problems, and new legislation may be the best way to fix some of those problems. But legislative changes that alter how science-funding agencies operate can have far-reaching consequences for researchers, and the changes can be quite difficult to undo. Add in many scientists’ distrust of legislators, and you can see why scientists are leery of any attempt by Congress to fix the problems of the enterprise.

Nevertheless, the 21st Century Cures initiative, launched by Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2014, appealed to many scientists who felt the careful approach would produce a bill beneficial to the enterprise. With the goal of identifying legislative means to accelerate discovery, development and delivery of lifesaving cures to the American public, the committee held many hearings and roundtable discussions, and they invited the community to comment on several white papers published by the committee. This work culminated in the release of a 21st Century Cures Act discussion draft in January. This draft legislation would make significant changes to clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.

Unfortunately, this draft only confirmed scientists’ long-held concerns about legislation and science. The draft legislation contains several sections of concern for basic scientists, but arguably the most troubling section attempts to address accountability and transparency at the NIH. This section states that the directors of all NIH institutes and centers must review and approve all grant awards. Furthermore, the directors must ensure that all funded grants are of “a national priority and have public support,” that they are not duplicative of other research, and that the investment in the grant is commensurate with the projected benefits.

These changes would not improve accountability at the NIH. Rather, requiring institute and center directors to approve funding for every grant would increase the bureaucratic burden of grant funding and slow the pace of research. In addition, institute and center directors cannot possibly know whether specific grants have public support; nor can the director know the results of the proposed research or if the investment matches the outcome. Finally, science is duplicative by nature, with many researchers pursuing very similar paths to achieve the same goals. Such broad language could cause significant damage to the research enterprise.

These directives are reminiscent of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act introduced in Congress in 2013. This legislation would have placed many of the same restrictions on the National Science Foundation. The scientific community was unanimously opposed to the FIRST Act for this and other parts of the legislation. Similarly, should the final version of the 21st Century Cures Act still contain these directives, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will oppose the legislation.

That said, the draft legislation does have some positive aspects to it. Requiring the NIH to report on aging trends in the enterprise as well as the agency’s efforts to eliminate waste and fraud will shine light on how the agency operates. Furthermore, the draft legislation would establish a working group charged with finding ways to alleviate burdensome NIH regulations.

The ASBMB submitted formal comments to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the draft 21st Century Cures Act at the beginning of February. As the committee works toward a final version, the ASBMB will continue to engage with members of Congress to get the highest quality bill possible.

Photo of Chris Pickett Chris Pickett is a policy analyst at the ASBMB.