The 2010 midterm elections brought massive change to Congress. Republicans reclaimed the U.S. House of Representatives, whereas the Democrats retained control of the Senate but saw their majority vastly reduced. These results promise to bring change to the approach of the legislative branch; what will their effect be on science?
Tightening the Purse Strings
As the federal deficit climbs past $1.5 trillion, leaders on both sides of the aisle are trying to create ways to move the country’s balance sheet back toward the black. These efforts, mostly centered on spending cuts, come as a great concern to scientists, who have become increasingly worried about their ability to obtain the funding and grants necessary to perform their research. In June, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recommended that federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, prepare their fiscal 2012 budget requests anticipating a 5 percent decrease in appropriations from fiscal 2011. Recently, more revolutionary strategies aimed at reducing the federal deficit have included proposals from a bipartisan commission to eliminate the NSF.
Additionally, in their recent “Pledge to America,” House Republican leaders John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Eric Cantor, R-Va., outlined their intentions to cut government spending almost 20 percent, rolling back funding to fiscal 2008 spending levels. For scientists used to budget growth that at least mirrors inflation, this would represent an enormous decrease in financial resources that potentially would leave numerous researchers struggling to survive. In a talk given at the annual American Society of Human Genetics meeting, NIH Director Francis Collins suggested that such policies would lead to so much of the NIH budget being tied up in committed grants that the success rate for new proposals, already precipitously low at 20 percent, would be reduced to barely 1 in 10.
In contrast, other signs point to a better-than-expected outcome for the global funding of scientific research. In the United Kingdom, the newly elected Conservative government recently released its spending review, which proposed average cuts of 19 percent across governmental programs. However, the budget for science funding was spared and will remain flat under the plan, leading some to envision a similar situation happening in the U.S. Meanwhile, some analysts have looked to the past as an indicator of the future. In 1994, a similar wave of voter discontent gave Republicans control of Congress, sparking fears of massive spending cuts. Yet thanks to steady advocacy efforts and a receptive audience in the form of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, science came out as a big winner. Congressional scientific champions, including Republicans John Porter and Mark Hatfield, were at the forefront of a push that led to the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003. Although repeating such a scenario in the current fiscal environment is unlikely, the episode does provide scientists with a glimmer of hope.
Leaders Past and Present
As for the legislators themselves, the passing of the 111th Congress sees the loss of several long-serving scientific champions. In the Senate, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is retiring after being defeated in the Pennsylvania democratic primary back in the spring of 2010. During his 30 years in Washington, Specter, a cancer survivor, has been one of the staunchest proponents of science and research in Congress. As a member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations committee, Specter consistently fought for increased funding for biomedical research and was instrumental in overseeing a nearly ten-fold increase in the NIH budget, from $3.5 billion to $31 billion, between 1980 and 2010. Moreover, Specter was one of the Senate’s earliest supporters of human embryonic stem cell research, holding hearings on the topic within weeks of the first report of their derivation in 1998 and even introducing the Stem Cell Research Act of 2000 that would have permitted federal funding for this line of research.
Even more change comes in the House. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., has stepped down after 26 years in Congress. As chairman of the Science and Technology committee, Gordon was hugely influential in commandeering bipartisan support for numerous scientific issues: One of his signature achievements was the passage of the America COMPETES Act in 2007. In a recent email, Gordon thanked scientific societies, including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, for their support and advice on scientific issues and emphasized his and the committee’s role in making “progress in increasing the investments in our research enterprise and education for our human capital.”
Also retiring is Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who served as chairman of both the powerful Appropriations committee and the LHHS subcommittee. Known for his decades-long dedication to health care, Obey teamed up with the White House to pass the Affordable Care Act (aka the health care bill) in March 2010. Furthermore, Obey was instrumental in passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which supplied an additional $10 billion over two years for the NIH on top of its regular yearly appropriations of approximately $31 billion.
Finally, with the recent controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells, it is with a touch of irony that Congress loses Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who lost in his bid to win the Delaware Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. Castle teamed with colleague Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., to sponsor legislation that would have expanded federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. In both 2005 and 2007, Congress approved the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act only for it ultimately to be vetoed by President Bush. A current version of the bill was introduced in September but is unlikely to be acted upon before the end of the current Congress.
Clearly, the loss of these scientific proponents leaves a void that will be felt throughout Congress as well as by scientific enterprises nationwide. Unfortunately, identifying new champions in the 112th Congress to replace these esteemed leaders will be a difficult task. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, remains chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee as well as the LHHS Appropriations subcommittee, where he consistently has demonstrated his strong support for science. A new potential Senate ally for scientists comes in the form of Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who was elected to President Obama’s former seat. Kirk was first elected to Congress in 2000 to succeed former LHHS chairman John Porter, for whom Kirk worked. Like his former boss, he has been a vocal supporter of funding for biomedical research and human embryonic stem cells.
Less clear are champions in the House. DeGette will remain at the forefront, as will Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a member of the LHHS subcommittee who has been a staunch NIH supporter. However, with such a large freshman class, supporters from the Republican side of the aisle will likely only emerge after the new Congress has sprung into gear.
With such uncertainty lingering, it is imperative that scientists make their voices heard if they hope to maintain federal support for basic biomedical research. Legislators old and new will be relying on their constituents to help them decide how to proceed in this era of uncertainty. The silent will be left behind.
Geoffrey Hunt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an ASBMB science policy fellow.