Monday, March 26, 2007

Federal Budget Priorities

This morning's Boston Globe has an editorial about how, on an inflation-adjusted basis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget actually declined by 13% last year. (Of course, this followed dramatic increases between 1998 and 2003 which led to a doubling of the NIH's budget.) The NIH's budget has been flatlined at about $28 billion for the past 3 years, outpaced by 9% inflation.

In fact, Men's Health is reporting that the 2007 budget for the Department of Health and Human Services, under which both the CDC and NIH operate, shows that grant monies for "Preventive Health and Health Services," "Public Health Improvement," and "Children's Hospitals" have been slashed by almost $375 million while "Bioterrorism" funding has increased to $1.7 billion, up nearly tenfold in the past 5 years.

As the Boston Globe editorial notes, the actual impact of the budget issues facing the NIH is that scientists are forced to spend more time writing grant applications and less time in the laboratory, and it also creates a bias towards research in tried-and-true areas and away from the unconventional. But as the editorial notes, the clampdown on spending means that the great majority of new research grant applications now go unfunded. Across the board, it seems that just 20% of applications win grants, while even successful grants are regularly cut 24% to 29% from the requested amount.

The sad reality is that promising discoveries recently made in the field of type 2 diabetes noted in the Men's Health article now face shutdown while the newly-created Department of Homeland Security has turned into yet another government wasteland, with such seemingly insane budget items recently reported by Newsday, as $18,000 to equip the Santa Clara, California, bomb squad with Segways; $30,000 to ensure a defibrillator is on hand for every Lake County, Tennessee, high-school basketball game; $500,000 worth of security gear to the town of North Pole, Alaska, population 1,778; Kevlar vests for the police dogs of Columbus, Ohio; and the list goes on.

The President's priorities were no secret, and the fact that he enjoyed a rubber-stamp Congress for most of his tenure helped to create this unhealthy (in more ways than one) environment. But November's election changed all of that, and the last 2 years of the Bush White House are finally bringing some public attention to some of this. The real issue is that in order to preserve the nation's laboratories and ensure resumed progress in medical research, Congress needs to increase NIH funding by at least the 6.7%/year for 3 years in order to recoup what has been lost to inflation. President Bush has promised to veto (only the second veto since he's been in office, first of which was to say no to expanding stem cell research) any budget that does not increase funding for the Iraq war. The real question is whether Congress will gather sufficient bi-partisan support to override his veto threat?

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