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AIDS Funding Outlook Hazy

WASHINGTON-The drive to quadruple federal funding for AIDS research to $1 billion annually faces an uncertain future within the Reagan administration and in Congress. A star-studded joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine has urged the massive increase after an intensive six-month study. Its report, issued late last month, also chides the National Institutes of Health for not enlisting enough university researchers in its effort to better understand the

By | November 17, 1986

WASHINGTON-The drive to quadruple federal funding for AIDS research to $1 billion annually faces an uncertain future within the Reagan administration and in Congress.

A star-studded joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine has urged the massive increase after an intensive six-month study. Its report, issued late last month, also chides the National Institutes of Health for not enlisting enough university researchers in its effort to better understand the basic nature of the deadly virus.

"If the senator has his way, funding will be increased," said a spokesman for Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), outgoing chairman of the Senate appropriations sub-committee that handles the majority of AIDS funding. "But it's hard to say now what lies ahead, and whether a $1 billion budget is realistic for 1990."

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is "looking at the possibility of developing a budget along the lines suggested," said Robert Rabin, assistant director for life sciences. He acknowledged the significance of the report and its certain implications on the President's 1988 budget but declined to comment on the level of funding it recommended.

Some observers say the ball is in the Reagan administration's court. "Will the Administration develop a plan that really asks researchers what they need in conquering AIDS, and will it really mean it when it asks the question?" wondered Terry Beirn, program officer at the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Committee co-chair David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, said at a press conference that federal research dollars must come from new appropriations rather than from existing public health programs. The government spent $249 million last year on efforts to understand the disease and is expected to spend nearly $400 million in fiscal 1987, said Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The panel also conclude4 that another $1 billion from public and private sources is required to re place "woefully inadequate" federal education efforts with a "massive and continuing public education campaign."

NIH, which will receive $247 million for AIDS research in fiscal 1987, has come to rely increasingly on government-generated research contracts at the expense of the more innovative investigator-initiated grants. The amount spent on AIDS research contracts, which tend to appeal to federal scientists, has increased almost five-fold since 1982, while grant awards for basic research have dropped from 40 percent of all AIDS funds spent by NIH to less than 20 percent today.

The nature and priorities of the research have a lot to do with the current critical situation, said Jane Durch of Harvard University's Health Science Policy Working Group, which prepared a background report for the committee. Roy Widdus, staff director for the committee, noted that large-scale efforts such as drug testing are better handled through contracts. But, he added, "the simple fact is that there hasn't been enough money to go around. We're convinced that NIH management feels the same way-they'd love to put more money into these basic research-oriented grants."

According to Baltimore, funding is especially needed to improve facilities and equipment for human immunodeficiency virus research, to focus more attention on animal model development, and to maintain an ample supply of chimpanzees and other animal stocks necessary for effective vaccine and drug development. This last recommendation is likely to become an issue with animal rights activists, who charge that AIDS is being used as an excuse to block the progress they have made in protecting chimpanzees.
 

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