via the Nature News Blog we learn that NIH Director Collins has been called upon by Congress to explain NCATS. This is the acronym for his pet project a Center dedicated to “Translational Science” that required axing the venerable National Center for Research Resources.

Collins noted that NIH’s support for basic research has held steady at about 54% of the agency’s budget for decades. “I do not expect that percentage to change,” he said. He added repeatedly that all but 2% of the $575 million funding the translational medicine center this year comes from preexisting NIH programs, and is not “new” money.

Some legislators, understanding quite clearly that money is fungible were keen to press Collins:

Representative Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, interrupted Collins to insist that he explain how the $64 million increase proposed for NCATS in 2013 can’t be seen as being largely funded by a cut to the Institutional Development Award (IDEA) program. The NIH in 2013 has proposed cutting $50.5 million from the program, which funds biomedical investigators, trainees and infrastructure in 23 largely rural states that have historically experienced low application success rates for NIH grants.

“I would not want you to see a direction connection between…the IDEA program and NCATS. Those are not the same dollars that just got moved from one box to another,” Collins responded.

“Dollars are dollars,” Lummis replied.

Exactly. And similarly there are plenty of imaginable grants that would be “translational science” that Collins will get to score in the “basic” category as well. Another CongressCritter argued with Collins that a prior boost to the IDEA program was intended to be permanent, something Collins disputed. Yes, keeping track of this slippery customer down the line will be pretty hard for our intrepid Congressional heroes.

There was another bit of testimony that drew my eye because it speaks to the potential upside of NCATS rather than whinging (ahem) about the costs to other programs. NCATS is supposed to somehow do better than the pharma industry. Ok, fine, but it sort of presumes the pharma industry is full of morons*. I’ve seen this before from academics under various guises of “Rational Drug Design” and the like. I am, shall we say, skeptical. In this particular bit of testimony on the “we’re smarter than they are, nyah, nyah” defense for NCATS a BigPharma type observed that FC is full of stuff and nonsense:

That view was challenged later in the hearing by Roy Vagelos, the former CEO of Merck, who said that the pharmaceutical industry spends about $50 billion annually, or roughly 100 times the NCATS budget, without solving the problems, like inadequate toxicology, that cause so many failures in drug development . “Does anyone in the audience believe that there is something that NCATS is going to do that the industry thinks is critical and that they are not doing? That is incredible to think that. If you believe that you believe in fairies.”

Vagelos added that, with success rates for applicants for NIH grants at historic lows, “We would be doing a lot more good for getting important new drugs on the market,” by funding more young investigators.

Word, PharmaDude, word.

*unless it addresses things that the profit industry is not really capable of grappling with such as their penchant for huge payoff, block buster, serves everyone type of drugs.