AAI President's Message

 

Laurie H. Glimcher, M.D. (AAI President, 2003-04)

After only a short time on the job, I'm surprised already at the volume of material that has come from Washington. Most of it deals with issues that are highly relevant to members of AAI, and I'd like to share some of them with you. Some of this material, as might be expected, deals with the 2004 and 2005 NIH budgets. We already know about 2004 – and the news so far isn't good – and my guess is that the 2005 budget will continue the trend of much smaller increases than we became accustomed to during the previous 5 years of the "doubling". Since a lot of the increases went into new "big science" programs, I'm concerned that the smaller increases will mean a continuation in the trend to feed such programs at the expense of growing the individual investigator-initiated grant pool.

I suspect that issues related to funding have been and will continue to be a constant theme for all AAI presidents. But a new and disturbing theme that has also come from Washington these days is the increasing tendency, driven I fear by right-wing ideology, to micromanage and manipulate not only scientific research but scientific advice. Without meaning to see conspiracies around every corner, there may be a disturbing analogy here with recent attempts by the US Attorney General to force federal judges to adhere to sentencing guidelines. We are all familiar with the burden that excessive government interference can place on the conduct of research. Those of us in academia have watched the rapid growth of our university bureaucracies in the past two decades, a growth driven to a large extent by the need to cope with a swelling tide of government generated paperwork. But at least that interference had the merit of being driven by a desire for greater accountability and efficient use of resources. What seems to be coming out of Washington now is something different – the politicization of federally funded science. For example, we have heard concerns raised about the apparent use of political litmus tests for agency directors, committee chairs and government advisors; the imposition of military-initiated research and development programs upon NIH institutes; and the effort to increase the centralization of NIH functions without regard for the scientific sensibility of the resulting structure.

All this is being played out against the backdrop of an NIH budget that HAS doubled and thus given all of us unprecedented opportunity for new and creative mechanisms to encourage research and training. One of my goals this year is to devise and implement one or more such mechanisms with the aid of NIH administration that will especially benefit scientists-in-training. And another goal is to get out the message—for I believe this to be true more certainly now than ever before – that this is the most exciting time in history to be doing science and that immunology is one of the most exciting fields of investigation.

The recent success of monoclonal antibodies as therapeutic reagents for cancer and rheumatoid arthritis is, I think, only the tip of the iceberg for the benefits that immunology is poised to bring to humankind. I see a future in which manipulation of the immune system is a mainstay of clinical medicine and biodefense. I hope to use the AAI presidency as a forum for bringing that message of excitement to a wider audience.

I look forward to working with all of you on these initiatives and I wish all of you a healthy, happy and productive year.

A recent Washington Post headline confirms my worst fear: "Budget Envisions Long-Term Cuts" (Washington Post, February 6, 2004; page A21).

According to the Post, "the Bush Administration's plan to cut the deficit in half within five years envisions an unprecedented long-term spending clamp-down that would continue well beyond 2005 for hundreds of popular domestic programs, according to an unpublished White House budget document. A 999-page Office of Management and Budget computer printout suggests that low-income education programs, medical research at the National Institutes of Health, grants to local law enforcement agencies, job training and other popular programs could be subject to freezes or cuts at least through 2009." (emphasis added)

Whether this plan becomes the law of the land, resulting in incalculable damage to the extraordinary research infra-structure of this country, depends very much on who decides our nation's budget priorities in the foreseeable future. If there were ever a time to get out and vote, contact your Congressperson, write letters to your local newspaper's editors, and advocate however you can – frequently and loudly – for the important work that we all do, that time is now.

Many of us remember the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the R01 payline at many NIH institutes was about 12% or less. Those were horrible times from which it took years to recover. And how many young scientists were deterred from pursuing careers in research will never be known.

Whether we are about to re-enter that era is a serious and worrisome question. The Washington Post article reports that there is considerable debate as to whether these "computer-generated estimates" are a true indication of the Administration's intent or "simply a device enabling the president to claim that he has a plan to rein in the deficit…." But the "handwriting on the wall" for NIH is clear: as the only federal agency whose budget has doubled in recent years, NIH is perceived as able to "afford" cuts or lack of growth in order to direct the meager domestic discretionary funds (those funds which pay for everything except federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare) that are available to Administration priorities such as tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan reconstruction.

Whether Congress will share these priorities or allow the elimination or dismantling of many important programs, including those at NIH, will depend in part on how active we all are in articulating our important message: federal funds devoted to biomedical research save lives, prevent suffering, and preserve our nation's preeminent role in biomedical research and development. With our Senate office buildings closed at this writing because of ricin discovered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and no treatment available for any who came into contact with it, one might think that the benefits of biomedical research are obvious in our war on terrorism. And indeed, considerable funds are being allocated specifically for biodefense research; but this is a band-aid approach that fails to acknowledge the crucial importance of basic research and basic biology as tools to protect people from – and treat victims of – both man-made and natural bioterror agents.

Despite the obvious benefits of – and urgent need for – biomedical research, the President's recently released budget for FY 2005 proposes a paltry increase of $729 million (a 2.6% increase), for a total budget of $28.757 billion. Of that nearly $28.8 billion, $1.7 billion is directed to biodefense research (an increase of 7.5%, or $121 million over FY 2004). In addition, $237 million is directed to the NIH Roadmap initiative, an increase of $109 million over FY 2004.

Against this big-budget picture is the world in which we, as scientists, must operate. The federal budget dictates this as well. The NIH budget for FY 2005 projects an increase of 258 awards (10,393 awards, comparable to the projected total for FY 2003) following a projected decline of 258 awards in FY 2004. It also projects an aggregate increase of 1.3% in average cost for RPGs: a 1.9% increase for noncompeting awards and a 1.0% increase for competing awards. There is no increase for NRSA stipends, although the budget does propose to increase the number of full time training positions by 225. These miniscule increases paint a bleak picture indeed for those of us running labs, as well as for those seeking to begin their own research careers.

AAI is still analyzing the details of the President's budget for NIH and its implications for us as scientists. But the bigger picture is already clear: this year looks bad, and the four years beyond that may look even worse. While AAI, and we as individual scientists, must and will fight this, we need to confront the realities that many other sectors of the economy have already faced: diminishing federal support amid increasing need. With fewer resources leaving each of us less time for other matters, it is more important than ever to support AAI as it represents us on Capitol Hill. If you or your colleagues have not already joined AAI, I urge you to do so and let our numbers strengthen our already strong message.