Judy Woodruff: Research, Health and the Spending Debate — Part Two

BY Judy Woodruff  March 23, 2011 at 4:03 PM EDT

If there is an army girding to do battle against government spending on medical research, that army is laying low for now.

Last week, I looked at the defense being mounted by the medical research community against efforts to cut federal support. I knew that the budget for the National Institutes of Health, $31 billion for fiscal year 2010, was facing proposed cuts of $1.6 billion, or 5.2 percent, for fiscal year 2011. House Republicans, led by freshmen members elected last November, had pushed through a spending bill that included reductions in domestic discretionary spending across the board. Included among their targets was the NIH, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world.

But the Democratically-controlled Senate voted down that legislation, and the resulting stalemate has led to a series of temporary agreements between the two chambers, or Continuing Resolutions, that postpone the day of reckoning for hard spending choices like this one.

While negotiators meet at intervals behind closed doors, members of Congress with responsibility over these decisions have little to say publicly about the fate of the National Institutes of Health. Representative Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NIH, was captive to a snow storm in his home state. A staffer said there was nothing he could refer me to that Rehberg had written or said recently about this issue. The overall Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has sent signals that NIH should be protected from big cuts, but it’s not clear what that means. A proposed large-scale reorganization of NIH and its research functions is adding to the confusion.

In the Senate, there does appear to be GOP backing for spending cuts in medical research: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, asked recently about the NIH budget by Bloomberg News, said: “I don’t think that we’re going to devastate our research in America if it had to take a small reduction.”

Even without specifics, there are countless members of Congress, especially freshmen Republicans, who say they want government spending cut as much as possible. Most, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., make the generic argument that the federal budget should be reduced simply to get government out of areas where it doesn’t belong, and as an incentive to the private sector to create jobs.

For arguments tailored to NIH, I turned to the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, where Chris Edwards, the Director of Tax Policy Studies, argued that savings can be found in the roughly half of the agency’s budget that is spent on applied research. Edwards said he understands there is an argument for government to fund basic research, or “pure” research, the sort of research carried out to increase understanding of fundamental principles. “Applied research,” on the other hand, takes theories and knowledge and uses them for specific or client-driven purposes.

The examples he gave were the development of new drugs, or of new medical devices: these are pursuits, he said, that could better be done by companies in the private sector, which need an incentive to create jobs anyway. Edwards used as an example the biologist Craig Venter, who was able to speed up the mapping of the human genome with his own privately-funded effort, spurring along a slower, government -funded project.

If Edwards were drawing up the budget, he said he’d be asking NIH right now to justify its work, to give him a ranking of all its research, according to what has been most productive. He told me that if he could, he’d ask them for a list of projects they had undertaken that were crucial to medical advances, detailing which news drugs and which medical advances they had yielded.

Once Congress moves the budgeting debate out into the open again, this is a question worth asking. As well as the opposing question: is it certain the private sector would pick up any important research the NIH is forced to drop, as a result of budget cuts?