NIH Spending Imperiled by Republicans Ignoring Gingrich Pleas

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

When House Republicans took power in 1995 determined to cut spending in a battle that shut down the U.S. government, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was persuaded to spare the National Institutes of Health.

Gingrich not only reconsidered his party’s proposed cuts to the NIH budget after hearing concerns from business executives and Nobel laureates, he later supported a bipartisan move to double the research center’s funding over five years.

For Republicans who took control of the House this year, those concerns aren’t resonating, and the NIH lacks a Republican champion. House Republicans are now pressing for a $1.6 billion, or 5.2 percent, spending cut to the center in Bethesda, Maryland, which includes the National Cancer Institute and other medical-research facilities.

Former Representative John Porter, a Republican who helped lead the 1995 move to boost NIH funding, and other critics say the cuts will hurt U.S. competitiveness and medical advances and underline the danger of across-the-board budget reductions.

“I’d call it, frankly, mindless,” said Porter, 75. Biomedical research “provides the kind of high-tech, high-paying jobs that we really want for our children and grandchildren. This is where we really make a difference in the lives of people all over the world.”

Porter, who oversaw the research center’s funding while on the House Appropriations Committee and is now on the board of the NIH foundation, said he fears lawmakers don’t understand the importance of the money in fighting disease or that much of it goes to institutions in their districts.

Gingrich Backs NIH

Gingrich, 67, who’s considering a 2012 presidential run, also objects to any NIH cuts. “We should be spending more, not less, on science,” said his spokesman, Rick Tyler. In a Washington Post op-ed last month, Gingrich wrote that his party decided to be “smart rather than cheap” in making cuts.

“We realized that cutting spending in areas that produce long-term savings was destructive to the goal of a sustainable balanced budget,” he wrote.

The budget for the NIH, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, rose to almost $31 billion in 2010 from $11.3 billion in 1995.

The investment has paid off, said Mark McClellan, a former Medicare administrator under Republican President George W. Bush who leads the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“The increases in funding in the past decade have been very helpful for achieving a lot of progress towards genomics, towards more personalized medicine and progress in a lot of areas that have tremendous potential to improve health,” he said.

‘Blunt Instrument’

Still, McClellan said he understands the pressure to address the deficit that leads to a “blunt instrument” approach to budget cutting.

“This all highlights why we need a better budget process than simply across-the-board cuts,” he said.

Public-sector researchers, who get about 70 percent of their funding from the U.S. government, contributed to the discovery of as many as 1 in 5 medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 1990 and 2007, according to a study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“People didn’t realize that,” said Ashley Stevens, a senior research associate at Boston University School of Management who led the study. Many of the treatments were for cancer and infectious diseases.

‘Seed Corn’

In 2008, global sales of those drugs totaled $103 billion, or about 13 percent of the pharmaceutical market, Stevens said.

Medicines that had their roots in public-sector research include New York-based Pfizer Inc.’s nerve pain remedy Lyrica, and the rheumatoid arthritis treatment Remicade, sold by New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co. of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, Stevens said. Remicade is the second- biggest product for Merck and the top-selling drug for J&J.

“Publicly funded research is the seed corn of the economy, and you really want to keep planting your seed corn and not eat it,” Stevens said.

John Castellani, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents drugmakers such as Pfizer and Amgen Inc., said concerns about fiscal policy and sustaining research funding are both important.

“We want to make sure that it continues at a level that we can get the work done that needs to be done,” he said of the NIH funding.

‘Thoughtfully Crafted’ Cuts

Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said he backed doubling the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003 and “would hate to cut a dime.”

“But I don’t think that we’re going to devastate our research in America if it had to take a small reduction,” the Alabama lawmaker said in a March 11 interview for Bloomberg Television’s Political Capital with Al Hunt. “There’s just nothing that can be avoided.”

House Republicans’ proposed cuts to the NIH “were very thoughtfully crafted so as to have no effect on biomedical research,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky. There would still be almost 9,000 new competitive grants awarded even with the reductions, he said.

Robert Alpern, the dean of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, sees it differently, saying prolonged cuts would have a “devastating” effect on research in the U.S.

China Gaining

“If you look in labs today, more and more of the successful researchers are coming from other countries,” he said. “China is starting to pull them back, and they are going after the best ones. If the U.S. decides they aren’t going to fund biomedical research, these people won’t stay.”

House Republicans passed a spending plan for the rest of this fiscal year that cuts $61 billion and includes the NIH reduction as part of an effort to roll back spending to 2008 levels. Freshman Republicans who campaigned on promises to rein in spending insisted on bigger cuts than party leaders originally proposed. The plan was rejected in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and lawmakers have passed temporary measures as they work on a longer-term compromise.

“The funding for biomedical research has always been bipartisan,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and cancer survivor who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “In the current environment, we would never have been able to fund the human genome project.”

Lobbying Congress

Advocacy groups fighting diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s are pressing members of Congress to restore biomedical research funding.

A nationwide network of volunteers for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network will be making calls and meeting with lawmakers across the country when members return to their districts this week, said Chris Hansen, president of the Washington-based group.

“I think they’ll get the message,” Hansen said. “We are going to keep the pressure on. The issue is too important not to.”

Members of the Parkinson’s Action Network held 250 meetings with lawmakers and staffers in Washington in one day earlier this month.

“There are so many diseases for which cutbacks in biomedical research would be devastating,” said Amy Comstock Rick, the group’s chief executive. “I don’t think it’s a given that NIH is protected at all. And that scares me.”

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