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Federal Hiring Freeze May Jeopardize NIH’s Ability to Improve Human Health and Spur Medical Innovation

Feb 15, 2017
Press Release
E&C Democrats Send Letter to White House Raising Concerns

Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Gene Green (D-TX), and Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO) sent a letter to President Trump today expressing concerns that the Administration’s federal hiring freeze may jeopardize the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) ability to carry out its mission of advancing scientific knowledge to improve human health. On January 23, the hiring freeze and a plan to reduce the size of the Federal government workforce through attrition was announced in a Presidential Memorandum.

“We urge you to consider carefully how instituting a federal hiring freeze and a reduction in the federal workforce through attrition affects NIH and our future leadership in biomedical research,” the members wrote.  “Harming NIH’s ability to carry out its mission will have a long lasting impact on our nation’s health and medical innovation capabilities.”

The Democratic health leaders reference several critical programs at NIH in the letter that could be endangered by the indiscriminate hiring freeze including:

  • The Intramural Research Program (IRP), which has led to important discoveries such as the creation of vaccines against hepatitis and human papillomavirus (HPV);
  • The Extramural Research Program (ERP), which funds the extramural researchers who decoded the structure of the Zika virus and identified experimental vaccines that may one day prevent the spread of the virus;
  • The Summer Internship Program (SIP), which provides full-time biomedical research experience to approximately 1,100 students training them to become future leaders in the biomedical research community; and
  • The Doctoral Fellows program, which employs 4,000 Postdoctoral Fellows to work in NIH laboratories and projects, which fosters the development of our future biomedical leadership.

The members also note in the letter that the hiring freeze may limit the success of the investments made in NIH through the 21st Century Cures Act.  The legislation provided $4.8 billion in new funding to NIH over the next ten years to spur breakthroughs in the development of new cures and treatments. 

“The hiring freeze might also limit the success of the 21st Century Cures Act because NIH may not have the personnel needed to award this funding and allow new research projects to begin as quickly as funding is made available from the NIH Innovation Account,” the members continued in their letter to the President.  “Such a result could extinguish the hope of millions of patients and families who are waiting for scientific breakthroughs for their conditions.”

Given the uncertainty of the federal hiring freeze the members requested answers to several important questions from the White House with particular emphasis on potential exemptions to the hiring freeze such as:

  • Have you asked for projections on how the hiring freeze on civilian Federal employees will affect NIH’s ability to fulfill its mission?
  • Have you asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to consider the effect of the hiring freeze on maintaining NIH’s preeminence as the world’s premiere biomedical research institution?
  • Are any positions at NIH eligible for an exemption due to the harmful affect that reducing intramural research and scientific training programs at NIH can have on human health?
  • Since NIH’s SIP and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program focus on providing a short-term work experience in hopes of recruiting or propelling individuals to pursue careers in biomedical research, will you ask OMB to create an exemption for these programs?
  • Since reducing intramural research and training programs at NIH can have a chilling effect on the nation’s health and medical innovation capabilities, would any positions within NIH’s IRP, SIP, or Postdoctoral Fellowship Program qualify for this exemption for “critical situations?”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released guidance on potential exemptions to the federal hiring freeze, however, it remains unclear whether any programs at NIH would qualify for an exemption to the hiring freeze. 

A copy of the letter to the White House is available here.