New push for NIH funding urged

Amid budget cuts, senators urge advocates to be more politically active

May 20, 2006|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Senators urged research advocacy groups and universities yesterday to step up efforts to win more federal funding for the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that funds most of the country's medical research but is facing a third consecutive year of cuts.

"You've really got to be more politically active," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told representatives of 20 interest groups advocating for more biomedical research funding at a congressional hearing.

From fiscal years 1999 to 2003, the NIH's budget nearly doubled, to $27 billion. Since then, cuts and inflation have eroded the budget by almost 11 percent.

This fiscal year, NIH funding fell $66 million. President Bush proposes to maintain its funding next fiscal year at $28 billion, but with inflation, that is effectively another cut.

To keep up with the rising costs, interest groups are clamoring for a 5 percent increase. Specter, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees federal health spending, told the advocates to mobilize supporters to contact their representatives in Congress and floated the idea of a million-man-style march on Washington.

"We did not work hard to double the funding of the NIH to have it plateau off," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, also expressed support for more funding and expressed interest in research into autoimmune diseases such as lupus, a disease that afflicts his wife.

Legislation in the Senate would increase health and education spending by $7 billion, including $2 billion more for the NIH. The House endorsed a similar overall increase Wednesday but didn't specify a sum for the NIH.

The 2 1/2 -hour hearing yesterday was intended to bolster the uncertain chances of increased funding, which will be the subject of further negotiations among the House, the Senate and the White House.

"We are terrified of flat funding at NIH," said Amy L. Comstock, chief executive officer of the Parkinson's Action Network. She said she worries that studies of several experimental drugs that appear to slow the progress of the disease might be delayed. "We have to have these trials, but we cannot have them with flat funding," she said.

Some advocates criticized the cancellation of a national study of asthma and other chronic diseases among children. Others said budget cuts would slow an investigation into the disproportionate impact of cardiovascular disease on African-Americans and the development of new therapies for such diseases as spinal muscular atrophy, which kills babies and young children.

"For my child, all of this is the difference between life and death," said Loren A. Eng, president of the SMA Foundation, who was speaking for a coalition of spinal muscular atrophy groups.

Researchers testified about the immediate impact of cutbacks, which have made it more difficult for scientists to win federal funding of their proposals and caused the NIH to slash awards for research.

"Current grants are routinely cut by 18 percent. In my institution, this is already causing layoffs, and students are turning away from promising careers," said Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the neurosciences institute at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, who spoke for the Alzheimer's Association.

Officials from the NIH expounded on the virtues of increasing funding but defended the proposed cuts given tight finances. Asked how much money they need, leaders of several agency institutes demurred. Specter asked each to submit wish lists in writing.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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