Senate panel votes cutoff in Gallo aid AIDS research effort would lose state money in two years

'It would be a mistake'

Legislative committee to negotiate deal on future subsidies

March 22, 1998|By Scott Shane and JoAnna Daemmrich | Scott Shane and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Three years after Maryland pulled out all the stops to recruit pioneering AIDS scientist Robert C. Gallo, a key state Senate committee says Gallo's Baltimore research institute has been subsidized enough and should lose its state funding after next year.

Gallo says the proposed cuts threaten the Institute of Human Virology just as it hits its stride, endangering the recruitment of key scientists and the millions in research grants they would bring with them.

"I'm baffled," Gallo, 60, said last week in his cluttered office in the $38 million Medical Biotechnology Center on Lombard Street, where his institute is housed. "I was told there was a basal level of funding forever. If there hadn't been, I wouldn't have come here. None of us would have."

Rattling off grants won, papers published, conferences sponsored, patients cared for, Gallo said the institute is on track to become the badge of prestige and the economic engine that state officials envisioned.

"We have kept our obligations," Gallo said. "We want the state to keep its obligations. Maryland has been great to us, and we don't want that to change."

But key state senators note that the memorandum of understanding Gallo signed refers only to three years of state funding at $3 million a year, ending this year. The document does not address funding for future years.

The state money helps pay general operating and salary expenses, which total $11.2 million in the current fiscal year. The institute also budgeted $2.8 million for capital equipment.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said Friday the legislature never agreed to provide more funding.

"The deal was, 'If you help us for three years, we're going to create this new company, and we're going to do all this new research,'" she said. "Now, they're telling us we said we would give them money forever. We have other researchers. Are we supposed to give all of them general funds?"

Gallo has been pleading with Hoffman to soften her stance for several weeks. In a letter Tuesday to Hoffman, who sits on the institute's board, he wrote: "I was convinced that you were an ardent supporter of our institute and the state's investment in our research."

While praising Gallo's work, Hoffman said she is philosophically opposed to continuing state subsidies without a specific time frame.

"I'm willing to give him an extra year, but we have never provided general fund support to any research institution indefinitely," she said.

The institute has asked that the state increase its $3 million appropriation by $1.5 million this year and next. After Gov. Parris N. Glendening intervened, Hoffman's budget committee agreed to add the $1.5 million in this year's budget. But it cut $1 million from next year's request and, most significantly, added language that would rule out funding after that.

A House of Delegates subcommittee last week voted to reject both Senate proposals. While the institute should generate most of its future funding from grants, contracts and royalties, the subcommittee said, the state should continue annual support.

"I think it would be a mistake to simply cut him off," said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on higher education. "Our committee feels that it has been a good investment."

The differences between the Senate and House will be negotiated in a conference committee. Glendening will push for funding of $4.5 million a year, a spokesman said Friday.

"Obviously, the governor has been very supportive of the Gallo institute and continues to be supportive," said the spokesman, Ray Feldmann. "He thinks it's a tremendous coup for Baltimore and Maryland for the institute to be located here."

In the high-octane world of medical research, few figures are as honored as Gallo, who earns $300,000 a year.

Four Nobel Prize laureates came to Baltimore for his institute's opening festivities in November 1996. To list his posts, honors and scientific publications requires 86 pages of fine print. Each year for a quarter-century, top scientists from around the world have gathered at the annual "Gallo meeting," held for years at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, and since 1996 in Baltimore.

Next month, Gallo will visit Harvard Medical School to split a $100,000 prize for his achievements in AIDS research. In May, he flies to Japan to collect a $50,000 award from a research foundation. A few days after that he goes to Stockholm to accept an honorary doctoral degree.

But controversy has dogged Gallo since a bitter dispute in the 1980s over whether he or French scientist Luc Montagnier discovered the virus that causes AIDS. Montagnier, who is starting his own AIDS research center at Queens College in New York, will share the Harvard award with Gallo next month.

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