Somtimes, I question my own intentions. Do I really think it's in Americans' interest to pay me to do basic biology research, or do I just like getting paid? Is the NIH anything more than welfare for academics? When such moments strike, I like to turn for advice to a liberal luminary, an advocate of the power of Big Government doing big jobs for the common good. Someone like -- Newt Gingrich?
NIH funding has been flat since 2004, undermining the gains earned through the doubling of the budget and slowing the pace of progress in biomedical research. The Bush administration's proposed fiscal year 2008 budget would cut $329 million from last year's allocation of $28.6 billion. Biomedical inflation significantly compounds the impact of this reduction. This is exactly the wrong course for the country. Investment in the NIH should be expanded, not cut.
The National Institutes of Health Reform Act, approved by Congress in 2006, contained the authorization of an increase of 8 percent for the agency in 2008. The House Appropriations Committee vote on June 7 calling for a 2.6 percent increase for NIH does not go far enough. The House, Senate and the Bush administration should follow the 8 percent increase authorization, and make a choice now to secure longer, healthier lives for Americans with this as the benchmark for future years.
Those paragraphs, emphases mine, are from an op-ed Gingrich co-authored in the June 24 San Francisco Chronicle. As I recently posted, the current Senate and House plans increase the NIH budget by only 3.5%, compared to an inflation rate in the life sciences of 3.7% (detailed numbers here). The current plans also shift funding obligations around within NIH in a way that leaves most Institutes with increases of less than 2.5%, a stunning real dollar cut relative to inflation. At this point, let me stop and ask, what upside-down, ass-backwards planet am I living on when Gingrich advocates government spending on medical research while the Democratic Congress wants to starve it out?
Gingrich lays out in detail why he's putting efforts into funding NIH, and how basic scientists can help, in an interview this quarter with the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). SfN has about 37,000 members, making it one of the largest scientific professional societies. SfN recently endorsed a white paper (PDF) on biomedical research issued by Gingrich's research advocacy group, the Center for Health Transformation.
The interview is here, and Gingrich lays out the salient points from the white paper and the op-ed. He does an excellent job doing what I've tried to do -- namely, to explain why NIH funding is critical for America's future. He lays it out in four points, essentially promoting American health, science, leadership, and industry.
First and most fundamentally, every day, past medical innovations help millions of Americans across the nation, in every community, in every state and every district. On that basis, policymakers should view funding NIH as an investment in our nation's future, rather than a fiscal burden.
Second, as I suggested above, we argue that the recent "start-stop" funding approach has hindered efficient research planning, slowed the rate of progress, and discouraged young scientists from entering or remaining in basic research.
Third, we present recent evidence that we think strongly supports the case that the Federal Government is still under-investing in biomedical research. The best economic analysis indicates that Americans value the resulting benefits of biomedical progress many times more than the amount the federal government invests to support this work.
Finally, we argue that that this investment makes sense on economic grounds as well. Investment in basic biomedical research also benefits America by stimulating the biotech industry, one of the most strategic components of the nation's economy.
Importantly, and as a sign to me that Gingrich really gets it, he nails the point I've been hammering on, that research funding needs to be a slow, steady, sustainable investment and that boom-and-bust cycles are wasteful and counterproductive. This is a really important point about the nature of science funding policy, that is rarely appreciated by non-scientists. It is a jolt to me to find a politician who can articulate it so clearly:
We doubled the NIH budget with the assumption that this would catch it back up to where it should have been all along. Recent budgets, however, are rapidly eroding all that the doubling accomplished. Not only do we risk soon finding ourselves back where we were a decade ago, but this feast-famine cycle is a terrible context for trying to plan and execute sensible long-term research projects.
So how can we get NIH funding back on track? Gingrich outlines three possibilities: a "great person" approach, where a single Congressperson (like John Porter in the 1990s) champions the cause; a "grassroots" approach, where scientists, scientific societies, biotech companies, and other interested parties speak up so loudly and unitedly that they can't be ignored; and a "budget reform" approach involving sweeping changes in the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, that I don't understand and that he doesn't detail.
Obviously, the grassroots approach is the most immediately relevant. Gingrich prescribes a set of actions for scientists and science advocates to move their agenda forward. It's remarkably simple.
I think the research community needs to speak out forcefully in the upcoming elections... Speaking out needn't mean using bullhorns and placards. In the coming election cycle, probably the most effective thing to do is simply to attend candidates' town hall meetings. Succinctly explain why you care about research funding. Ask them to explain their position. Press them for specifics. This can all be done in a very respectful and appropriate way.
Having hosted hundreds of such meeting while in office, I can assure you that if researchers consistently attend such meetings, it will make a lasting impression on policymakers and candidates. It is surprisingly effective. You don't need to travel beyond your congressional district to make an impression on representatives, but you probably will need to show up on a couple Saturday mornings at local political events. Another approach is for researchers to work through their employer or through a professional association to request a meeting with their representative in their district office. With good preparation and a clear message, this too can be very effective.
He doesn't actually mention blogging, but I figure if I can convince ten of you to show up and ask a question about NIH funding at town hall meetings in your district, I've amplified my voice 11-fold. Maybe it's worth organizing scientists and non-scientist science advocates, and keeping a list of zip codes and email addresses to try to get as many town halls attended as possible.
Here's where I'd like your help. First, I know there are a fair number of scientists and science advocates who read this site. (If you've made it this far, you're pretty much a science advocate by definition.) What would need to happen to get you to (a) attend town hall meetings with candidates in your city, and (b) if you get to ask a question, making it about biomedical research funding rather than the many other pressing issues on all of our agendas?
Second, I'd like to make more science advocates. If there's any way I can do that through blogging, great. What lines of conversation have you found to be effective for getting other people excited? What gets you excited about science, yourself? I've occasionally posted here about basic science (telomerase, microRNAs) but I'm not good at talking about the kind of clinically relevant work that I'm afraid most people respond to. Maybe the best thing is for me, as Gingrich says, to "succinctly explain why [I] care about research funding."
And speaking of that, finally, does anyone have any advice for how I can get back to Planet Normal, where Democrats stand up for long-term visionary government enterprise, and Gingrich doesn't?