Biodefense Squeezes US Science Budgets

Francesco FiondellaWhen he addressed the nation in January, President George W. Bush left little doubt that he intends to invest enormous amounts of federal cash into homeland security, including efforts to protect Americans from bioterrorism. What the president did not say during his annual State of the Union speech was where the funds will come from.The federal budgets for FY2004 and FY2005 reflect a fundamental shift in White House priorities when it comes to scientific research, one that foc

Dana Wilkie
Mar 14, 2004
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Francesco Fiondella

When he addressed the nation in January, President George W. Bush left little doubt that he intends to invest enormous amounts of federal cash into homeland security, including efforts to protect Americans from bioterrorism. What the president did not say during his annual State of the Union speech was where the funds will come from.

The federal budgets for FY2004 and FY2005 reflect a fundamental shift in White House priorities when it comes to scientific research, one that focuses on homeland security to the detriment of basic biomedical research for some of the world's deadliest diseases, critics say. "After a period of vigorous funding for the National Institutes of Health, the fear is that suddenly the tap is going to be shut off," says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "The problem with science is that it's really difficult to operate in this on-again,...

SHIFTING PRIORITIES

The reduced emphasis on basic research in part reflects efforts to trim a federal deficit approaching $500 billion, and to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it also reflects the White House's resolve to thwart terrorists' attempts to use biological agents to harm or kill American citizens. Bush has called for spending freezes in all federal agencies or programs not related to defense or homeland security.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told Congress that the doubling of NIH funding allowed researchers to identify the cause of the SARS virus "in record time." Because of the extra money, he says, scientists have developed 50 new vaccines for various diseases, tripled the number of vaccines being tested for AIDS, and developed two potential vaccines for West Nile Virus. But now, what increases there are in federal research spending will go largely to fight bioterrorism.

In 2005, the administration wants the NIH to spend an extra $120 million for research on bioterror-related agents for a total of $1.8 billion. It also wants $181 million to protect food from bioterrorism, reflecting an increase of 56% from 2004.

"The administration seems to want to throw money at specific [bioterrorism] problems," says Pat White, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which represents 65,000 researchers. "Science takes the view that the best way to get results is to invest in a broad portfolio of ... research, because a breakthrough or insight that comes in malaria is as likely to benefit anthrax research as putting $1.6 billion into anthrax."

While many may argue that NIH funding increases are better than decreases in a climate of rising budget deficits, researchers point out that there are inflationary costs associated with biomedical research. Such costs, along with commitments to ongoing research that obligate much of that money, will consume most of the increase and leave little for new initiatives.

Less money makes it more likely that only top-rated projects will continue to get funding, while other research programs may get dropped entirely. "The real concern is that Congress is going to waste some of the money they've already spent, because you're going to start research, then not see it through to get the benefits from it," Tipton says.

CANCER FUNDING CONTRACTS

After a five-year period during which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) watched its budget increase by 81%, the institute got a 3.9% increase in FY2004 (an extra $178 million) over FY2003. While that may sound like a lot, officials at the American Cancer Society point out that one must factor in the automatic cap required by the White House for its "Roadmap for Medical Research," a percentage garnished from each institute's budget to pay for a common pot of money to speed drug discoveries and clinical trials.

That, taken with the money already tied up in noncompetitive grants, leaves a budget that reflects a $2.5 million decrease, society officials say. Bush's proposal for 2005 is not much better, amounting to slightly more than a 2% increase. NCI director Andrew von Eschenbach has said that his institute needs $6.2 billion just to stay on track in its war against cancer.

"We understand there's not an infinite number of dollars here," says Wendy Selig, vice president of legislative affairs for the American Cancer Society. "But if you're a cancer patient, you have to wonder if it was research that might have cured you that ended up on the cutting room floor."

Particularly vulnerable, Selig says, is research on rare, yet still deadly cancers. "If the research engine is slowing down to the point that there is no appreciable growth, there's real concern that we're not going to get very far with the 'smaller' cancers – pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, blood cancers."

Funding for Alzheimer's research at NIH institutes will go up $20 million in FY 2004, from $660 million to $680 million. Officials at the Alzheimer's Association say inflationary costs and commitments to ongoing research obligate much of that extra $20 million. Moreover, the costs to continue multi-year Alzheimer research projects were projected years ago, with the anticipation that modest funding increases would continue from year to year. With the limited increases this year and next, such projects will have to be scaled back, which may mean letting go of scientists and closing labs.

"I certainly wouldn't say we shouldn't put [money] into [fighting] bioterrorism," says Stephen McConnell, senior vice president for public policy at the Alzheimer's Association. "That's serious, too. But we have to find ways to keep the momentum going. "The scientific community feels we're very close to being able to delay the onset of this disease, and even prevent it. The real question is: Should we be able to finish that job, or do we put the money someplace else?"

<p>Joe Panetta</p>

Courtesy of BIOCOM

Not all research groups are dismayed. Joe Panetta, president of the San Diego affiliate of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says it is unreasonable to expect the sorts of funding increases that the NIH saw in past years. Moreover, he says, the threat of bioterrorism requires significant investment. "There is the potential for those who threaten us to develop products ... [that are] more potent than the products ... for which vaccines are being produced," Panetta says. "We need to stay ahead of the curve, and we don't do that with existing technology, but by investing in research."

Dana Wilkie dwilkie@copleydc.com is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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