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Administration Proposes Cuts in NIH Research

By Boyce Rensberger
The Washington Post


The Clinton administration proposed Thursday to cut the budgets of nine of the 19 research institutes of the National Institutes of Health and to hold four more to increases of around 1 percent or less.

It is the first time in memory, several leaders of the biomedical research community said, that a president has proposed cutting the budgets of any NI* institute, which together have long been among the most highly valued parts of the federal establishment.

Among the institutes being asked to scale back their efforts are those working on prevention and treatment of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, alcoholism, mental illness and diseases of the aged. For example, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which is charged with fighting the leading cause of death in the United States -- heart disease -- would see its budget cut 1.3 percent.

Although all institutes are being asked to make cuts in existing programs, some would get budget increases because they are to receive funds earmarked for new or enlarged "targeted" research efforts on AIDS, breast cancer, and minority health. As a result, NI* as a whole would get a 3.2 percent increase.

Hurt most at NIH, biomedical researchers said, would be basic science, research that is not aimed at immediate practical payoff but which opens the new realms of knowledge from which future advances come.

The administration's strategy at the NI* -- favoring applied science over basic science -- is consistent with its proposals for comparatively large budget increases at the National Science Foundation and at NASA

At the NIH, the largest of the increases would go to institutes working on cancer (8.1 percent) and infectious diseases (8.8 percent), as well as the Human Genome Project (26.6 percent). The 3.2 percent increase for NI* as a whole, biomedical researchers said, works out to a net cutback because the inflation rate for biomedical research -- higher than that for the overall economy -- is expected to be about 4.1 percent next year.

The budget proposal, if approved by the Congress, would give the NI* an increase of $333 million, bringing the total budget authority for fiscal 1994 to $10.67 billion.

"This could be the first year ever when NI* did not at least break even," said Jerold Roschwalb of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "It's stupid. The administration's been talking about investing in American technology and this is the best investment money you can get. The breakthroughs in basic biomedical science ultimately save you money."

Advocates for the biomedical-research community also note that it was basic science that gave rise to the biotechnology industry, one of the fastest growing high-tech fields in the world. Yet the NI* arm devoted most exclusively to basic science, the Institute of General Medical Sciences, is slated for an increase of 0.1 percent.

At the National Science Foundation, by contrast, officials and grantees are generally pleased with Clinton's budget. In announcing NSF's $3.18 billion budget proposal two weeks ago, outgoing director Walter Massey said the increase would "give priority to those programs that invest in the nation's long-term economic growth and social progress."