By Erik MacLaren, PhD
Posted: April 1, 2019
On January 25, 2019, the Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Norman E. Sharpless, MD, participated in a live social media event to discuss the NCI’s budget plans for 2019. During the hour-long discussion, Dr. Sharpless presented his assessment of the current funding situation, elaborated on his vision for the future of the NCI, and fielded questions from the other panel members—Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, deputy director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and chair of the NCI’s National Cancer Advisory Board, and Dafna Bar-Sagi, PhD, senior vice president and vice dean for science, chief scientific officer, NYU Langone Health and chair of the NCI’s Board of Scientific Advisors—and the online audience.
Dr. Sharpless opened the session by discussing increases in funding and knowledge that have been achieved in recent years, saying, “It’s a special time in cancer research; we’re making progress at a breathtaking pace.” He highlighted broad bipartisan support in Congress for the NCI and increases in the NCI’s budget for the past 5 years running. Dr. Sharpless also noted a striking and unexpected increase in new grant applications during this time and attributed this rise to “recent advances, Congressional support, and enthusiasm generated by the Cancer Moonshot.” These new applications, he said, demonstrated the vibrancy of current cancer research but also made grant funding more competitive for cancer scientists because the number of new applications has outstripped available new funding. Noting that the overall NCI budget is set by Congress, Dr. Sharpless discussed ways to reprioritize available funds to increase the Research Project Grant (RPG) Pool, from which extramural grants are funded. These included: a 5% cut to the budget for divisions, offices, and centers within NCI; 3% cuts to noncompeting awards; and slowing the growth in funding for certain ongoing initiatives such as the National Cryo-Electron Microscopy program at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.1
In response to a question from the audience about funding for lung cancer research, Dr. Sharpless first explained the difficulty in calculating detailed funding information for a specific disease site. This is because there are many areas of spending that affect more than one type of cancer, such as immunotherapeutics, or increase knowledge without immediately producing clinical benefits. “I would argue that the progress in lung cancer bears that point out,” Dr. Sharpless said. “The great new therapies available in terms of immunotherapies, ALK inhibitors, EGFR inhibitors, and other targeted agents have occurred because we have really improved our understanding of the basic science of lung cancer.” Additionally, Dr. Sharpless expressed his view that planned funding increases for clinical trials and the RPG Pool would benefit lung cancer research directly and that none of the budget changes being made would be detrimental with respect to funding in this area.
Finally, Dr. Sharpless discussed ways the NCI is planning to cope with the 7-year timeline of the funding for the Cancer Moonshot,2 which contributed $300 million to the NCI’s budget each year in 2017 and 2018, $400 million this year, and $200 million per year through 2023. Dr. Sharpless acknowledged the difficulties that reduced funding in future years will cause by saying, “There is no doubt that the things we are building using Moonshot funding, such as the immuno-oncology networks, are going to continue to exist and will need to be funded from our general budget. Fortunately, we have plenty of time to plan for that.”
The discussion was broadcast live on Facebook and Twitter, and a recording of the event is available on the NCI’s YouTube channel.3 ✦
1. National Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility. National Cancer Institute. cancer.gov/research/resources/cryoem. Accessed February 12, 2019.
2. Cancer Moonshot. National Cancer Institute. cancer.gov/research/key-initiatives/moonshot-cancer-initiative. Accessed February 12, 2019.
3. NCI’S 2019 Plans: Conversation with the NCI Director [Video]. YouTube. youtube.com/ watch?v=eit6uuGkQ3Y&feature=youtu.be. Accessed February 12, 2019.