BETHESDA, Md. -- Bernadine Healy will leave the NationalInstitutes of Health (NIH) on June 30 with a vague uneaseabout the agency's future -- an agency that she speaks of inalmost loving terms. "One always has to be concerned aboutone's children," she said in response to a question about NIH'sfuture under the Clinton administration.
Biotechnology permeates most of what NIH does, and "is one ofour bright stars in terms of competitive industries," Healy toldBioWorld in an interview, in large part because of theunderpinnings of basic molecular and cell biology that havebeen provided by NIH. "I am concerned that if we don't sustaina robust investment in NIH broadly and pay attention totechnology transfer specifically, American biotechnology wouldbe in jeopardy," she said.
In the course of developing NIH's strategic plan, manyscientists said they preferred to see the agency remain alooffrom issues of technology transfer, competitiveness and jobcreation.
"That's a philosophical difference," Healy told BioWorld. "I don'tshare that view. I hope the next director will recognized thatthis is an added value of NIH, which doesn't diminish itsmission of basic research.
"This year is particularly difficult -- one of the worst we've hadin recent history, coming after many years that have been onthe lean side," she said. Under Clinton's budget request forfiscal 1994, the budget for AIDS will grow by about 25 percent,and breast cancer and the human genome projects will seesimilar growth. But the rest of the NIH budget will shrink, andthe net growth of the agency will be just a few percent.
"I don't think it's so much that the AIDS budget is expanding,but that the rest of NIH is contracting," said Healy. "I don'tthink we are overinvesting in AIDS and breast cancer, but I'mworried about the contraction at NIH and think it's exceedinglypoor judgment."
She added, "I will be very distressed if AIDS or breast cancer iscut. Those are hard-won battles."
In particular, Healy emphasized the importance of the HumanGenome Project. "I have gone to great lengths to keep thatprogram strong, and to expand it," she told BioWorld. "If youask what element of the work we do at the NIH is most criticalto the pre-eminence of U.S. biotechnology, it's the humangenome."
Healy also complained about "the huge clearance process" NIHmust endure to publish a brochure or document, such as theNIH strategic plan. "The clearance process is unbelievablycomplicated," she said. After a year in the maze down at theDepartment of Health and Human Services, the agency'srequest to publish a brochure describing itself was rejected."This is interference with our ability to perform our mission,"Healy said.
After she leaves NIH, Healy will spend several months figuringout what she wants to do next. She said she has received offersto head corporations, including a biotechnology company, andto run universities. And she has been approached aboutrunning for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, her home state.
-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.