Are Universities Doing Enough to Support NIH Funding?

Are Universities Doing Enough to Support NIH Funding?

Senator Arlen Specter: Current Budget Cuts Will Cause Loss of a Generation of Scientists

PHILADELPHIA -- Universities that have received billions in National Institutes of Health grants for health-services and biomedical research haven't done enough to support NIH's own fight to stave off Capitol Hill budget cuts, says former Senator Arlen Specter.

Speaking in his 19th-floor Walnut Street law office, the 81-year-old who ended a 30-year Senate career in January said the scientific community has been "derelict in not picking up the cudgel" and publicly opposing those cuts.

In an interview with LDI Senior Fellow Art Caplan, who is also director of Penn's Center for Bioethics, Specter emphasized that the issue was not just the current reduction in NIH funding. Equally important, he said, is the need for steady growth in research funding to keep up with dramatic change sweeping across all of U.S. health care.

Penn alumnus
Specter, a 1951 Penn graduate who returns to the University this fall as a Law School adjunct professor, was a leading champion of biomedical and health-services research during his five terms in the Senate. As chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversaw the NIH, he orchestrated the growth of agency's annual budget from $12 billion to $30 billion.

The NIH is the Godzilla of funding for the nation's sprawling community of health care-related researchers. Eighty percent of its annual budget underwrites research grants for more than 350,000 scholars at more than 3,000 universities, medical schools, and research institutions. An additional 10 percent of the budget funds its own in-house research projects conducted by more than 5,000 scholars and scientists.

"The current $300 million in NIH cuts will cause us to lose a generation of scientists," said Specter. "We also lose the opportunity to make very important advances in biomedical research unless that is changed. And right now, with the Tea Party in a dominent position, it looks doubtful that it will be changed unless the electorate raises hell."

'The fringes are in control'
Speaking in good humor but clear concern, he characterized that electorate as "indifferent to the political process. Who's responsible for the problems in government? The non voters. In the 2010 election only 37 percent of the eligible voters voted. The political parties have been taken over by the extremists; the fringes are in control."

"But," he continued, "there is enormous potential political power out there (that is not being used). For instance, among the universities. Penn and Pitt each have gotten $4 billion in NIH funding in the last decade. They have powerful boards of directors. This is replicated across the country at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins and the rest of them. And if they mobilized and organized to put some political pressure on it could be a different picture. But the current attitude is inertia."

"At the moment, he said, "the prospects for adequate funding for NIH are somewhere between bleak and black."