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Van Hollen Visits NIH, Addresses Employee Concerns
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Janet Stephens
On the Front Page...
U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who represents the state's 8th congressional district, where NIH is located, stopped by the Natcher auditorium on July 12 for an hour-long town hall-style meeting with employees to discuss current topics of interest and share his experiences as a freshman member of Congress. Following a morning visit to the Children's Inn at NIH, the congressman greeted NIH'ers outside the auditorium before being introduced by NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington.
Giving highlights of Van Hollen's bio, Kington joked that the congressman would be considered "an honorary member of the broad scientific community today" because of a brief period during which Van Hollen majored in physics at Swarthmore. Apparently, a quantum physics course helped Van Hollen decide that his studies and career might be better aimed toward law. The congressman accepted the lighthearted introduction with humor, joking that his secret science past is now out.
"This is, as you might imagine, a very challenging district to represent," he said. "No matter where you are, there are people following very closely what is going on in the federal government. Take health issues, for example. You've got people from NIH, from FDA, and if they're not working for [the Department of] Health and Human Services or one of the other federal agencies, they're often working for one of the businesses trying to influence the behavior, results and work of one of our federal agencies. That's true not only of health care, but also of national security and other issues.
"We don't just get the typical form letter in our office," he quipped. "We often get these memos with three different options and a recommendation. It does keep us on our toes. It makes us quickly recognize the limits of our knowledge. It also makes us appreciate hearing ideas and input from people who are very knowledgeable about a lot of issues."
Before opening the floor for questions, Van Hollen briefly addressed several topics that have been under discussion at both Congress and NIH in recent months, including the budget forecast for fiscal year 2005 and beyond, reports of conflicts of interest among NIH scientists, stem cell research, and the need to revisit government policies on outsourcing.
"There's been strong bipartisan support for many years for NIH," he pointed out, recounting the doubling of NIH's budget from 1998 to 2003 during which time increases were about 14 percent annually. "After that period we saw a dramatic slowdown of increase. In talking to people around the country at colleges and universities and people involved in research, there's a real concern about a lot of the opportunities that were opened up during the doubling, areas with big potential that we were not able to explore before. If we don't sustain a higher budget level, we're not going to be able to pursue those cures and treatments...It doesn't mean that we have to have 14 percent increases every year, although I'd like to see it. It does seem to me that we need increases above the rate of inflation. This year's budget increase depending on how you calculate it, it's between 2.6 percent and 2.9 percent does not keep up with inflation. All of these issues that we're following in Congress require trade-offs and setting priorities. We need to make sure that our national investment in biomedical research remains one of our very top priorities."
The congressman also said he believes proper balance and flexibility are essential for NIH and Congress to uphold their responsibilities to the nation's citizens.
"I think it's important that we in Congress allow you at NIH and others who are experts in biomedical research to make the key decisions about where to invest the funds so that we can put them to the best use," he noted. "In order to keep Congress from micromanaging, it's important that NIH have a transparent process so the public knows how the money's being spent. To the extent that people feel that they have input and that their concerns are addressed, then Congress can resist the temptation to say where research funds will go. That is the balance that I ask."
About conflict of interest, Van Hollen said, "In order to attract the best scientists, who can go just about anywhere they want, it's important that we have flexibility. At the same time, it's important to ensure the public trust."
The congressman's remarks on two other issues drew rousing applause from the audience: his support for expanding research on stem cells and his contention that the A-76 process should be reevaluated for fairness and efficiency.
Congress is continuing to debate stem cell research, he acknowledged, but "I hope it's an area where the science will inform public policy rather than politics determining the outcome of the science...I hope we can put politics aside and move forward."
Van Hollen pointed out that federal agencies have used contractors "for decades, so the issue isn't contracting out, per se. It's a question of the rules of the road that govern the process and whether they are fair to federal employees. It's important that the rules are not tilted against federal workers."
Discussing one of NIH's recent A-76 victories, he said, "I think that competition showed that when you're looking for quality work to be done, then the best group of people to do that are here at NIH. We have to be careful with this contracting-out process that we don't so undermine the morale of the federal workforce that they can't accomplish their mission. We're going into a period where it's becoming harder and harder to attract and retain highly motivated, qualified people to federal service...We need to find the right balance and I look forward to continuing to work with you so that the rights of federal workers are properly protected."
Van Hollen also provided updates on current legislation related to NIH interests: He reported that Project Bioshield legislation, which involves research to develop potential therapies for bioterrorism, was scheduled to be passed by the end of the week (President Bush signed it July 21). In addition, he said Congress was still negotiating the annual so-called pay parity provision between military and civilian federal employees. "The larger issue," he explained, "is trying to make sure that salaries in the public sector are commensurate with salaries in the private sector." Noting that health insurance costs are rising in both sectors, Van Hollen also mentioned bills he cosponsors that would have the federal government pay for up to 80 percent of health benefits premiums for its workers. Currently, up to 70 percent of premium costs is covered by federal employers. The congressman admitted that such legislation is not likely to see movement before the November elections, however.
"Thank all of you for the work you do for our community and country in the area of biomedical research," he said, turning to health-specific topics. "You've got a terrific team of scientists and everybody else who is part of the NIH mission. The fact that the rest of the world was able to respond so quickly to the SARS virus is a testament to the work that is being done and the advances being led by NIH. I'm also pleased with your work in the mental health area. I understand that you've recently been able to identify some of the genes related to schizophrenia. These advances are constant. They are advances that have a direct impact on families throughout our country and throughout the world. I thank you for your efforts there."
As a member of the House committee on education and the workforce, Van Hollen said another of the issues where he has benefitted recently from NIH expertise is child nutrition legislation, or the school lunch program.
"One of the things we focused on this year," he remarked, "was the whole issue of obesity, which as you know, is a national epidemic. I know that you have a lot of different institutes here that focus on particular areas and obesity is obviously something that cuts across many different disciplines. I'm pleased that you're putting together interinstitute, inter-center cooperation on this. With all the gains we're making in cardiovascular [diseases] and diabetes and other disorders, we'll have to take one step backward if we don't address obesity, which will have an impact on all those areas."
During the question period, employees commented on several other issues, including the need for expansion of the telework/telecommuting policy. Van Hollen agreed traffic and environmental problems could be helped if more employees were allowed to work away from the workplace and that bipartisan legislation has been discussed recently that could force federal agencies to increase the number of telecommuters.
Ending his visit, Van Hollen also said he appreciated all the outreach work NIH supports outside its campus. "You also are a great driver of our local economy," he concluded, noting that the region is number four behind California, Massachusetts and North Carolina in attracting biotechnology companies looking to relocate. "It's no coincidence that the I-270 corridor has become home to a lot of new businesses in the biotechnology area. Our goal of course is to move up from fourth, but the reason we have been so successful in attracting businesses is because we have places like NIH."
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