“We are in a time of unimaginable scientific and technological progress,” he writes. “By funding basic medical research, Congress can transform our fiscal health, and our personal health, too.”
Yes, yes, some of you readers on the political left may be rolling your eyes at this moment as you remember Gingrich’s zealous ideological dedication to slashing government spending and gutting federal agencies back in the 1990s.
But Gingrich has actually been a long-time champion of the NIH.
“When House Republicans took power in 1995 determined to cut spending in a battle that shut down the U.S. government, [Gingrich] was persuaded to spare the National Institutes of Health [and] he later supported a bipartisan move to double the research center’s funding over five years,” writes Bloomberg reporter Catherine Dodge.
‘Irresponsible and shortsighted’
As Gingrich points out in his op-ed, the NIH budget was about $30 billion last year — some 20 percent lower (after inflation) than it was a decade ago. As a result, about 12.5 percent fewer NIH-funded research grants were awarded in 2014 than in 2003, while grant applications have risen by almost 50 percent.
“It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle,” Gingrich writes. He explains why:
N.I.H. is spending just $1.3 billion a year on Alzheimer’s and dementia research — or roughly 0.8 percent of the $154 billion these conditions will cost Medicare and Medicaid this year, more than all federal education spending.
Alzheimer’s isn’t unique: Diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, stroke and arthritis all cost enormous sums and cause incredible suffering. But the promise of breakthrough cures and treatments for this disease is amazing. The N.I.H. is funding a clinical study that represents a potential paradigm shift in treatment. Rather than try to eliminate the buildup of plaques in the brain after the onset of dementia, researchers are studying interventions in families with a genetic predisposition to early onset Alzheimer’s to prevent the disease before symptoms even develop.
The N.I.H. is also pioneering the development of immunotherapies, which are already allowing doctors to spur patients’ immune systems to attack cancer and other diseases rather than relying solely on surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The N.I.H. recently discovered a vaccine that appears to cure an AIDS-like virus in monkeys. The insights from genetics, personalized medicine and regenerative therapies could potentially lead to substantially longer and healthier lives for many. But to achieve that promise will require a greater budget.
Easy to say, harder to do
In his op-ed, Gingrich names several members of Congress, including Republicans, who are actively proposing increased NIH funding for basic science research.
But, as Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein noted last month when a committee in the Republican-led House voted against increasing NIH funding, while “it’s easy [for Congress] to commit to a plush, well-funded NIH; it’s harder to agree on ways to get there.”
Stein reiterated that observation in a column yesterday:
For all the pro-spending vibes [in Congress], … the mood within the science research community could be described, most generously, as cautiously optimistic. Republicans control both chambers of Congress, and their budgets include such dramatic reductions in discretionary spending that, absent some other agencies taking huge cuts, the NIH won’t see much more money next fiscal year. President Barack Obama can change that with a tough negotiating line — which he has pledged to take — but that likely would yield only a modest uptick in funding.
The best hope for a major investment likely would come from outside the budget process. And there are a few pieces of stand-alone legislation that seem promising to the advocacy community. But the same obstacles remain. More Republicans are speaking out in favor of NIH funding, but the clear majority of them will demand that it be offset with cuts elsewhere. And that, in turn, doesn’t leave much room for operating.
You can read Gingrich’s op-ed on the New York Times’ website.