WASHINGTON_Six Nobel laureates testified before a HouseAppropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, pleading with lawmakersto spare biomedical research from the coming budgetary blood bath.The hearing served as a prelude to hearings scheduled for later thismonth on the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) fiscal 1996budget.

Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor,Health & Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, isknown to be a strong supporter of NIH research budgets. But rankingminority member, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), told the scientists thatbiomedical research funding is in great peril. "We're heading for atrain wreck," he said, citing a combination of deficit reduction goalsand proposed tax cuts. Obey estimated that if Social Security,Medicare and defense spending are left "off the table" in the budgetcutting process, all other programs _ including the NIH _ wouldneed to be cut by 42 percent in order to balance the budget by 2002.

Porter, whose Subcommittee funds the NIH, painted a less grimpicture. "In the end we will not cut taxes," he said, adding thatlawmakers would come to the realization that the current generationshould pay its own bills and not leave them for future generations. Hesaid that deficit reduction and a balanced budget could still beachieved without slashing research funding.

David Hubel, a neurobiologist from Harvard Medical School whowon the Nobel Prize in 1981, said that NIH research funding is sodifficult to get, some scientists spend four months out of every yearwriting grant applications. "The future may look dark but the presentisn't all that bright either," he told subcommittee members onTuesday. About 80 percent of NIH grant applicants are rejected eachyear.

Clinton's proposed budget for 1996 set aside $11.8 billion for theNIH, a 4 percent increase over 1995's estimated $11.3 billion budget.In recent years, NIH funding has kept pace with inflation but has notbeen significantly increased.

Among those in the audience at Tuesday's hearing were NIH directorHarold Varmus and Francis Collins, director of the National HumanGenome Project (which gets part of its funding from NIH and partfrom the Department of Energy).

"NIH investments are investments in the future economiccompetitiveness of this nation," argued Phillip Sharp, chair of theBiology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology anda 1993 Nobel Prize winner. "These resources are well spent oncompetitively reviewed work."

"No new grants will be funded if the NIH gets a 30 to 40 percentbudget cut," warned J. Michael Bishop, a microbiology andimmunology professor at the University of California, San Francisco."Biomedical research would essentially be eradicated as a careertrack for vast numbers of young people." n

-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.