GOP budget cuts would hurt research, NIH says

By Alex Wayne
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Spending cuts proposed by the man who is likely to become the new House majority leader would reduce scientists' chances of winning U.S. grants by nearly half, demoralizing researchers and slowing development of new drugs, according to the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Republicans taking control of the House next year would roll back funding to agencies, including NIH, to fiscal 2008 levels, according to a proposal by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is likely to become the chamber's majority leader. That would equate to a 4.3 percent, or $1.3 billion, cut to the agency's $30.8 billion annual budget.

The reduction would be "very devastating" and would demoralize scientists, whose odds of winning a research grant from the agency could drop to about 10 percent, NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview. Fewer than one in five grant proposals are successful, he said.

NIH-funded research led to the development of drugs that include the cancer therapies Avastin, sold by Roche Holding AG, and Novartis AG's Gleevec, said Jennifer Zeitzer, lobbyist for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda.

John Murray, a spokesman for Cantor, declined to comment. Republicans haven't detailed their plans for passing spending cuts. They will face opposition from President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Republicans who interpret the results of the midterm elections as a mandate to cut funding for NIH "will be in for a rude awakening," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an e-mail. He is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds Collins's agency.

Some Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate may defy the budget cuts and defend NIH, Zeitzer said. One ally could be Sen.-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which controls discretionary spending.

"He's been a strong champion for NIH when he was a House member," Zeitzer said. "We'll be talking to him quite a bit."

Other potential GOP supporters include Reps. Brian P. Bilbray (Calif.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.). The three recently filmed videos posted online by United for Medical Research, a Washington-based coalition of 20 universities, drug companies and patient-advocacy groups that lobbies for increased NIH spending.

"These are guys who understand, look, even in a smaller government, there are certain things the government can and should do," said Janet Lynch Lambert, vice president for government relations at Life Technologies of Carlsbad, Calif., and president of United for Medical Research.

The NIH, based in Bethesda, last took a spending cut in 2006, when a Republican-controlled Congress trimmed its budget by about $34 million. Zeitzer and Collins said Republicans have otherwise been proponents of the agency. The agency's budget more than doubled, to $29 billion, from 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress, to 2007, when they lost it, NIH records show.

- Bloomberg News

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