- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

We’d call the National Institutes of Health a kind of national treasure, except that it is more than that. The institute and its 27 components pay dividends every day in saved lives and medical innovations via important basic research. That’s why we’re so troubled at President Bush’s proposed budget cuts for NIH in 2008. Congress is in the midst of a series of hearings on the subject. We’re awaiting the hackles.

Mr. Bush has proposed a $529 million cut over 2007 levels, for a total 2008 budget of $29.8 billion. Even considering that $300 million of this figure is a transfer to the Global AIDS fund, the resulting cut is unacceptable. Remember, the $29.8 billion represents a very large swath of the country’s basic scientific research, and some of its most productive, on a wide range of research areas, from heart disease to cancer research to the human genome and more.

In a recent Senate appropriations panel hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, called it “scandalous” that the nation spends less than $30 billion on basic research when the benefits are so manifest. We second that description. NIH funding is an investment in our collective future. It underwrites basic research that, in many cases, the private sector cannot or will not undertake. Its role as a kind of national medical loss leader opens the door to further advances.

As NIH Director Elias Zerhouni pointed out, NIH funding works out to roughly $44 a year per American. What a small price for so much. Sure, every agency head can point to critical work in a bid for more funding. But NIH can actually demonstrate the benefits.

The larger story here is that the bipartisan consensus on robust NIH funding has fallen apart over the last four years. What happened? Funding doubled over the period 1998-2003. But beginning in 2004, it flatlined and began to drop. The current budgetary pressures, including the war on terror, are no doubt part of the explanation. But so is a simple loss of public interest, which has prompted a drop in focus from the White House and Congress. This is puzzling. It is not as if the state of cancer in America, to take one example, warrants the drop. Are Americans simply too busy worrying about other threats to their well-being?

Whatever the reason, the underlying facts warrant a substantial budget increase, not a deep cut. Congress has a key role in the coming weeks. It should safeguard full funding for the National Institutes of Health.

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