Science campaigns for cash

Researchers want presidential hopefuls to commit more funds

October 22, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- With their efforts to win more government funding stymied in Washington, medical researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere are taking their lobbying campaign on the road -- and into the presidential campaign.

The doctors and scientists plan to raise the profile of their issue by advertising and organizing in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. It is the latest move in an effort to reverse an erosion of federal funding for medical research, and another example of interest groups using the presidential campaign to push their individual issues.

Despite intense lobbying, funding has not kept up with inflation since the National Institutes of Health's budget climbed to $27 billion in 2003, double the amount from five years earlier. Since then, the agency's budget has leveled off.

Scientists want the next president to provide more money, and they hope that candidates who make pledges now will be more likely to propose increases, if elected.

"It's getting it into their lexicon, their planning, so it's an assumption they will do it," said Mary Woolley, president of ResearchAmerica, the organizer of the campaign drive, which is funded by medical schools at Hopkins and other universities, as well as drug companies, professional societies and groups such as the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.

ResearchAmerica, which is spending $400,000 on the initiative, says its mission is nonpartisan. Last week, it sent candidates a three-page questionnaire seeking their positions on more funding for the NIH and other public health agencies. It will post responses on a Web site, www.yourcandidates yourhealth.org.

The awareness drive could help doctors and scientists cultivate relationships with candidates that would prove helpful during the budget process, said John Edward Porter, chairman of ResearchAmerica's board.

"We have been going in reverse. There has never been a period like this where funding has been below the rate of inflation," said Porter, a former Republican representative from Illinois who helped expand funding for the NIH when he was in Congress.

Many interest groups try to take advantage of presidential elections, and the news media attention they attract, to bolster their causes. This season, groups are trying to increase attention to world hunger and public education, among other issues.

Scientists worry that stagnating research funding has not only meant that promising projects have been rejected. They say it has also started discouraging bright young people from joining the field.

To attract interest in their cause, the researchers want to piggyback on the issue of health care, which, polls show, Americans consider the most pressing problem after the war in Iraq.

Advocates will assert in ads and e-mails -- and when confronting candidates at campaign events -- that an effective and affordable health care system depends on the scientific advances that research brings.

"In the long run, funding of NIH is going to equate into saving lives, saving money," said Dr. John Wahrenberger, a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., and an organizer in that state.

Analysts say candidates would feel obliged to pledge support if the issue becomes prominent enough.

"None of these candidates are going to particularly want to defend not spending money on cancer or heart disease," said Robert Blendon, an expert on health policy and public opinion at the Harvard School of Public Health.

A few candidates have already touched on the topic. In August, Democrat John Edwards, whose wife Elizabeth is fighting breast cancer, voiced support for increasing the budget for cancer research. This month, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed doubling the NIH budget. Republican Fred Thompson's Web site mentions his support for promoting medical research, but it doesn't say whether that would mean more funding.

Still, raising the profile of biomedical research won't be easy in a campaign crowded with issues that include illegal immigration, high oil prices and national security. Just 2 percent of 1,500 adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation in August said they wanted to learn more about medical research.

Some say increases in funding would only help medical schools and research institutes fill the labs they built during the last round of increases, while others argue that if the goal is improving health care, the cash-strapped government should target any extra resources to research that helps doctors and patients choose the best treatments.

"Some of us might say, given we just doubled the NIH budget, it might be time to worry about how that is translated into effective use of therapeutics and devices," said Gail Wilensky, a health policy expert at the nonprofit Project Hope, who was a top health appointee in former President George Bush's administration in the early 1990s.

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