Possible Transfusion for NIH

Key senators will push for $5.2 billion in supplemental funding for National Institutes of Health, directing $1.2 billion to cancer research.

July 17, 2008

With his head still balding from 12 recent cycles of chemotherapy, Sen. Arlen Specter touted a new effort Wednesday to bolster medical research funding by $5.2 billion, $1.2 billion of which would be specifically aimed at unlocking the mysteries of cancer.

Specter (R-Pa.) unveiled the plan alongside Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, who is co-sponsoring the legislation to boost funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Specter learned in April that he has had a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease, a cancer for which he was previously treated in 2005. Speaking of the pending legislation during a Senate subcommittee meeting, Specter spoke of his personal struggles with disease, adding that the United States had done little to end the “war on cancer” that President Richard Nixon declared more than 30 years ago.

“If that war had been pursued with the intensity of other wars, I wouldn’t have gotten Hodgkin’s,” he said.

Specter and Harkin’s proposed legislation would add supplemental funding to the 2008 budget for the NIH, which is the primary source of federal money for university biomedical research. This money would come on top of the $29.38 billion already appropriated to the NIH this year.

The new funding would keep the NIH budget on pace with inflation, something that hasn’t happened in the last five years, according to news releases issued by both senators.

After Boom, NIH Growth Slows

Congress began an effort in 1999 to double the NIH budget, bringing it to $27.1 billion in 2003. But the excitement that once spurred lawmakers to infuse the institutes with funds has waned in recent years. That downward trend was the subject of great criticism during Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

“I think that [decline] is shameful,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “And I don’t think it’s defensible morally or politically.”

Wednesday’s meeting featured an all-star cast of top-notch researchers, including Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project. Collins lamented what he described as noticeable declines in American-sponsored research, which has left a vacuum for countries like England and China to emerge as research powers.

“I’m seeing our leadership on many of these projects eroded,” he said.

Specter, long a champion of the NIH, urged the scientists in the meeting to promise real results that he could sell to his Senate colleagues. What would happen, for instance, if the NIH received $335 billion over the next 15 years? Could cancer be cured?

Specter’s question elicited little in the way of concrete answers from the esteemed panel, illustrating a notable tension between the NIH and the lawmakers who steer money toward biomedical research. Lawmakers want real promises, like “we’ll cure AIDS if you give us X.” But scientists will tell you that the often mysterious process of discovery makes these promises difficult, if not impossible, to make.

While there was a lot of big talk about curing diseases Wednesday, the Harkin/Specter legislation will face real challenges. Asked about the legislation’s probability for success, the Office of Management and Budget was quick to throw some cold water.

“Congress needs to first focus on its fundamental job to fund our government in a fiscally responsible way,” Jane Lee, a spokeswoman for the office, said in an e-mail. “They failed to get a single one of the 12 annual appropriations bills to the President’s desk. With 25 legislative days left before the end of the fiscal year, this is the latest that both chambers have failed to pass any of their annual spending bills in more than two decades.”

President Bush, who once embraced the doubling of the NIH budget, has also signaled that he wants no new growth of the NIH budget during the final year of his presidency. His 2009 budget proposal freezes the funding at current levels.

“Rest assured,” Harkin said, “that Congress will not accept the president’s approach.”


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