Budgetary belt-tightening

July 1, 2007

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Under the proposed budget for 2008, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) would receive just $330,000 more than the $507.75 million provided by Congress for this year, as the administration seeks to cut overall NIH funding by $328 million.

In his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Health and Human Services (HHS) Subcommittee in March, NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., pointed out that this year, for the second year, the absolute number of cancer deaths in the United States has declined despite the growth and aging of the population.

After discussing these and other research advances, Dr. Zerhouni explained the administration's approach for 2008.

Fight for funding

"We made the tough but necessary choices to ensure that the investment and momentum of biomedical research continues," he said.

Leading Democrats have emphasized that those reduced expenditures for medical research will not stand.

"FY 2007 marked the fourth year in a row that NIH funding failed to keep up with the costs of inflation," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), subcommittee chairman. "In fact, since ... FY 2003, NIH funding has dropped by about 13 percent in real terms. That cut threatens to squander our nation's investment in biomedical research, delay new cures and treatments, and discourage the next generation of young investigators from entering the field."

On the House side, Rep. David Obey (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also said in March that Congress increased the FY 2008 budget, but gave no specifics.

"I'd suggest that the investments that you're talking about ... are tremendously important - not just to the public's health, but also to the productivity of the economy," he said during a hearing on the NIH budget. "Healthy people are a whole lot more productive than sick ones."

In April, appearing before the Senate appropriations HHS subcommittee, NIAMS director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., outlined some advances made by the institute.

"This year, scientists supported by the institute identified a gene that causes susceptibility to psoriasis," he said. "With this information, it may be possible to target the product of this particular gene in developing new treatments, rather than using current therapies which suppress the entire immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to infections."

In the coming year, he continued, NIAMS will "leverage resources with public and private sector partners to support key initiatives, including training fellowships in partnership with scientific organizations to support orthopedic surgeons and dermatologists to pursue epidemiology, clinical trials, and health outcomes research."

To enhance the "research pipeline," he said the Institute "will fund promising new investigators through the NIH Pathway to Independence program."

Doling out the dollars

But in NIAMS' budget justification documents, the agency stressed that "investigator-initiated research projects and research conducted by new scientists continue to be the institute's highest priorities."