Congress and the Bush administration--the same lawmakers who say that they want to spur healthier and longer lives for all Americans and economic growth through the harvest of our medical and health research enterprises--have proposed a historically low FY04 budget increase for the National Institutes of Health. As returns on recent research investments emerge, momentum could be slowed or dismantled by curtailed support for the NIH budget. Those of us who understand the central role that research plays in the well-being of our nation have a narrow window in which to act. When scientists speak, lawmakers listen. And scientists must speak now.
While it is true that in deficit times it becomes necessary to tighten the nation's economic belt, nothing could be more destructive than reducing our commitment to medical research funding. It's convenient to believe that all individual scientists need do in respect to public policy is tell their professional societies to send their messages to Congress. I assure you that this is not enough. Congress is composed of primarily nonscientists, so citizen scientists, acting individually and collectively, need to inform, educate, inspire, and direct their representatives regarding policy decisions affecting science.
Over the past several years, accelerated support for the NIH has sparked extraordinary and transformative accomplishments in medical research--accomplishments that have brought hope to patients with heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, cancer, and genetic and immunological challenges. It also has helped America prepare for bio- terrorism, prevent against the imprecation of new infectious agents such as the SARS virus, and devise new early-detection testing for a broad array of illnesses.
But the war on disease is far from over, as a drastic cutback in this support will stall groundbreaking research in preventing and curing disease, disability, and injury.
Additional fallout from inadequate NIH funding will diminish levels and longevity in individual grant support, causing deep discouragement among investigators who have devoted years to complex and promising research programs, which need continued funding to bear fruit. It also could discourage our most promising younger scientists from entering medical research, thus creating a vacuum that might take decades to overcome.
The FY04 NIH budget increase as proposed by the president and as recommended by the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittee is a mere 2.5%. The Senate LHHS subcommittee's recommended increase is 3.7%. Funding at these levels will dramatically slow the export of discoveries from "bench to bedside" and have a negative impact on promising therapies. Indeed, these "increases" not only fail to keep pace with inflationary costs for research, but also withhold the promise of vitally needed resources for research advancement.
Earlier this year, the Senate over-whelmingly recognized the need for sustained, strong investment in medical research when it passed a resolution, by a vote of 96-1, calling for substantial increases in the FY04 NIH Budget. Studies show that a minimum increase of 8.5% is required. In a time of evolving challenge, and with civilian biodefense research emerging as a new and core priority at NIH, such funding levels are essential to guarantee our nation's safety, health, and well-being.
Ironically, cutbacks in medical and scientific research funding would come at a time when Americans from all walks of life have emphasized their commitment to such research. For example, polls commissioned by Research!America recently found that 97% of Americans believe that the United States should maintain its global leadership role in research. Americans want more, not less, of their tax dollars invested in this area.
To move therapies rapidly into the treatment arena and to provide hope and solutions for those suffering from devastating disease, we must commit to appropriate, expanded medical and health research funding. A minimum 8.5% budget increase in FY04 for the NIH, as well as stronger support for other medical and health research agencies, will position our nation to advance our highest research priorities and continue the critical momentum gained in the past five years. Your letters, E-mails, and phone calls to Congress and the White House have never been more important. Let the President, your senators and representative know today what is at stake. We simply cannot afford to do less.
Paul G. Rogers is the chair of Research!America. He is a former US Congressman from Florida (1955-79) and was chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment (1971-79).