Profiles of Progress: Members of Congress Fighting for Cures

Released: 2010

Senator Tom Harkin

Congressional appropriators are not supposed to play favorites among the programs under their jurisdiction, just as parents are not supposed to play favorites among their children. But, when it comes to National Institutes of Health, I long ago threw that rule out the window. As chair of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, and also as chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, I am committed to doing everything in my power to maintain the leadership of this extraordinary institution.

NIH is the jewel in the crown of biomedical research, not only in the United States, but globally. More than 80 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for NIH-supported research. Five of those Nobels have been awarded to investigators in the NIH intramural programs for landmark discoveries that include the mapping of the human genome.

This is a dazzling record of discovery, and it has translated into countless lifesaving medicines, treatments, and therapies. Thanks significantly to NIH-sponsored research, deaths from heart disease are down 63 percent, and from stroke by 70 percent, since the 1970s. HIV is no longer a certain death sentence. NIH-sponsored research is the basis for the vast majority of new medicines – everything from cholesterol-lowering statins to pharmaceuticals that target specific cancers.

Today, the United States leads the world in biomedical research, in part thanks to generous funding for NIH and its research grant program. Senator Arlen Specter and I take pride in our success in doubling funding for NIH between 1998 and 2003. In February 2009, I was able to include a one-time supplemental infusion of $10.4 billion for NIH in the Recovery Act.

But the years of abundant funding are now behind us. As I write this, the books on Fiscal Year 2011 still aren’t closed. NIH is operating under a continuing resolution holding its funding at Fiscal Year 2010 levels. We face a significant challenge to gain a level of funding for the current fiscal year that, at a minimum, preserves NIH’s purchasing power.

And new threats to NIH funding are on the horizon. The President’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission offered its recommendations on December 1, 2010 — and commission members have made it clear that “everything is on the table.” As the economy continues to recover, the federal government will be turning its attention away from stimulus and toward deficit reduction and cost-cutting.

While President Obama stressed the importance of investment in biomedical research in his 2011 State of the Union Address, it is going to be a huge fight to maintain NIH’s relatively privileged status in the appropriations pecking order. Any reduction in after-inflation funding for NIH would be a grave mistake — a classic case of penny-wise, pound-foolish budgeting. I pledge to lead the opposition to any such cuts. It would be folly to starve NIH for funding at the very time when we are on the cusp of extraordinary breakthroughs in biomedical research.

Will we discover more effective targeted treatments for cancer, and possibly a cure? Will we invent medicines to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and a vaccine to prevent HIV-AIDS? Will we learn to restore sight? Will we learn to heal severed spinal cords, and make it possible for people in circumstances like those of the late Christopher Reeve to walk again? An affirmative answer to these questions depends on sustained, generous funding for NIH.

The fact is, unless basic research in the biomedical sciences is funded by the federal government, most of it will not get done. This basic research is not a luxury. Without the research of the past two or three decades, we wouldn’t have many of the treatments and cures that we benefit from today.

On that score, I often note that we named this organization the National Institutes of Health, not the National Institutes of Basic Research. We must always remember that the ultimate goal of government-funded biomedical research is not just discovery for the sake of discovery, but discovery for the sake of better health and saving lives.

When I think of Dr. Francis Collins and all the other world-class scientists at NIH, as well as other researchers who receive NIH funding, I’m reminded of an old saying: “In times of great change, there are two kinds of leaders, those who usher out the old — those are called pallbearers — and those who usher in the new — and those are called torchbearers.”

Over the years, NIH-funded scientists have been among America’s most ambitious and accomplished torchbearers. They have been wonderworkers, giving hope to tens of millions of Americans suffering from chronic disease or living with disability. I believe passionately that Congress has the responsibility to give NIH researchers the generous resources they need to continue their extraordinary work.

Fortunately, I do not stand alone. In the pages that follow in “Profiles of Promise,” you will read the personal stories of key Members of Congress who have championed life-saving research at NIH. With the support of citizen activists all across America, we intend to ensure that the best days of NIH are in the future, not in the past.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.