ust before adjourning late last month, Congress passed the FY 2002 budget for the National Institutes of Health, increasing funding to $23.285 billion, a nearly 15 percent raise. In doing so, for the fourth year in a row, Congress lived up to its commitment to double the NIH budget by FY 2003.
But such a sustained jump in funding for NIH might never had happened and, in fact, may not last forever. This growth occurred because NIH supporters--including scientists--demonstrated to Congress, the administration, the media, and the American people that government investment in biomedical research improves health care. Scientists, though, need to remain ever-vigilant about causes they believe in. They must stay or become involved in the political and legislative process because their voice counts, as it has in NIH funding over the years and with stem cell research last year.
It wasn't too long ago that Congress considered slashing the NIH budget. During the 1994 elections, Republicans had run on the Contract with America, which called for a tax cut and a Balanced Budget Amendment, two things that would mean deep cuts in government spending. A House of Representatives budget resolution at the time included a 5 percent cut in all domestic programs. The Senate version was worse, cutting NIH funding by 10 percent.
Enter Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore. Now retired, Sen. Hatfield was always a committed and powerful ally to those who believed in the value of biomedical research. He offered an amendment to restore nearly all the NIH funding the Senate planned to cut. But he needed help to convince his colleagues. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) burst into action and contacted more than 11,000 of its members, many of whom contacted their senators. The amendment passed 85 to 14.
Biomedical research supporters saw the victory as a chance to prevent severe research funding cuts but still had to convince the House, which had a new speaker, the belt-tightening Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. But on May 11, 1995, Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., a longtime NIH supporter and the new chairman of the subcommittee that controlled NIH funding, arranged for the speaker to meet with a delegation of several supporters of biomedical research. Dr. Samuel Silverstein, chairman of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, who was then FASEB's president, led the delegation. The group, which included scientists, educators, and industry leaders, was able to convince Gingrich that increasing NIH funding would lead to biomedical science advances, benefiting both citizens and businesses.
That year, Congress increased the NIH budget by almost 6 percent. Effective lobbying, a strong grassroots effort, and well-placed champions helped prevent cuts in NIH's budget. Several years later, building on the success they had in 1995, NIH supporters were once again able to convince Congress of the importance of further increasing research funding. Starting in FY 1999, the 105th Congress began the now ongoing process to double NIH's budget by FY 2003.
Scientists, consumer groups, and academic medical centers also played a significant role in lobbying the federal government on embryonic stem cell research. Shortly after he took office in early 2001, President George W. Bush suspended the NIH guidelines on embryonic stem cell research, essentially preventing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research until some future time when he was to decide on the issue. Bush had been elected with the strong support of religious conservative groups who believed this type of stem cell research violated the sanctity of life.
Rather than accept what seemed like an inevitable defeat for stem cell research, though, advocates joined forces to fight for their cause. Scientists, including many Nobel laureates, banded with patient groups representing millions of Americans with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and juvenile diabetes.
In March of 2001, colleges, universities, scientific societies, and patient groups formed the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. Working on a shoestring budget, coalition members met with dozens of members of Congress, worked with the media on countless stories, editorials, and opinion pieces, and mobilized the grassroots resources of its member institutions. One day in June, rumor had it the White House was to issue an unfavorable decision. On a day's notice, so many people called the White House switchboard that it crashed.
The result: By August, more than half of the Congress was on record in support of stem cell research, including pro-life advocates such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. On Aug. 9, the president announced his stem cell decision on national television: The federal government would fund research on stem cell lines created before Aug. 9. Although the decision fell short of what advocacy groups wanted, it allowed some federally funded embryonic stem cell research to go forward, a far cry from a total ban many had feared the president would support.
What's next? This year, Congress will need clear-headed scientific expertise to address a number of important and controversial issues, most notably, somatic nuclear transfer research. Congress also soon will have to decide about the NIH budget after FY 2003. As Americans especially learned after Sept. 11, what is so precious about our democracy is the role everyone plays in its success. All Americans, including scientists, need to get engaged in our political process. By doing so we help play a role in shaping the country's future.
Ross Frommer is deputy vice president for government and community affairs at Columbia Health Sciences. If you want more information about the federal legislative agenda or about getting involved, please contact Ross Frommer at (212) 305-4967 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robin Eisner, editor of In Vivo, provides editorial guidance for Point of View contributions.