The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (APRA-H) has come a long way since the Biden administration first proposed a new biomedical research agency back in April 2021. Since then, Congress and the administration have started laying the foundation for the new agency. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 appropriations omnibus provided $1 billion in funding for the nascent agency and directed the president to appoint an ARPA-H director. In congressional hearings last spring on the administration’s FY 2023 budget request for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Secretary Xavier Becerra offered a few more details, like the administration’s preference to make ARPA-H a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
There are still more questions than answers about what ARPA-H could one day look like. However, more details have come into focus in recent weeks as authorizing legislation for ARPA-H progresses through Congress and the administration makes new decisions about ARPA-H personnel.
A New Acting Deputy Director
While the search for a permanent director remains under way, the administration has at least made headway in naming a temporary member of the new agency’s leadership team. On May 25, HHS Secretary Becerra appointed Adam H. Russell, DPhil, to be ARPA-H’s acting deputy director. With experience managing research projects at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Russell is tasked with building out the administrative structure of the new agency and hiring initial staff until the president appoints a permanent director. It remains unclear if Russell is under consideration for a permanent role either as director or deputy director.
The ARPA-H Director: Appointment or Confirmation?
When the administration finally taps someone to permanently lead ARPA-H, will the appointment require Senate confirmation? Recently, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) revised her ARPA-H authorizing legislation to require the Senate to confirm the ARPA-H director. The Senate’s legislation on ARPA-H and previous versions of Eshoo’s bill did not address whether the individual appointed by the president would require confirmation. The House is set to vote on the bill during the week of June 20, while a Senate panel already approved its ARPA-H bill in March.
The Continued Debate over Placement within NIH
To date, the question of whether APRA-H should be an independent agency within HHS or a part of the organizational structure of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) remains unsettled. The Senate’s legislation aligns with the administration’s preference of placing the new agency within NIH, which Becerra explained over multiple congressional hearings would allow ARPA-H to focus on developing breakthroughs from day one by delegating administrative functions to the parent agency. However, Eshoo and other lawmakers have been firm in their stance that ARPA-H must be independent to successfully carry out its mission, and her bill maintains this position.
Where Will the ARPA-H Headquarters Be?
While certain lawmakers and the administration have yet to agree on whether the Senate should confirm the ARPA-H director and the placement of e the organization, there is a universal agreement that the new biomedical research agency should not be physically located on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Over the past few months, several states have been jockeying to be selected as the home base for the new agency. Members of the Texas and Massachusetts congressional delegations have recently sent letters to the administration urging their states to be considered as the location for ARPA-H due to their existing infrastructure in medical research and life sciences.
In Massachusetts, business and academic leaders have joined public officials on efforts to lure ARPA-H to the Bay State. Several members of the Ohio congressional delegation are also urging the administration to select Cleveland as the new ARPA-H home, and other states vying for the headquarters include California, North Carolina, and Maryland. However, the administration has yet to announce a timeline for its headquarters selection process or provide any details on how a location will be chosen.
When Will We Know More about ARPA-H?
Once the House votes on ARPA-H legislation during the week of June 20, stakeholders will have to keep an eye on the Senate. While minor differences around the provision of whether the Senate confirms the ARPA-H director seem reconcilable, other issues like whether to place ARPA-H within NIH will continue to garner significant debate. Until a final agreement can be reached, further details on ARPA-H will probably be sparse, as the administration will likely hold off on major announcements on items like personnel and a headquarters location until legislation is close to the finish line.