Science World Won't Be Sorry to See Bush Go

( ) - In science, as in most things, you usually get what you pay for. Money doesn't always mean you get the best. Just ask the New York Yankees so far this season.

But when a nation has been the world leader at something as vital as, say, medical research and regulation, and annual funding is flat or declining when it used to go up, then money may matter.

The stakes for America were spelled out in a panel discussion held at the first-ever World Science Foundation last weekend in New York.

"I think there's a loss of American power and prestige that came about as a result of our anti-science policies," said biologist David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and the chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Harold Varmus, another Nobel laureate and the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, decried the lack of attention being paid to advancing science even in the current presidential campaign. "The campaign so far has given too little attention to what science means for our own economy and our status in the world," he said.

This comes as reports and recommendations have been piling up describing the slowdown in research grants and projects at the National Institutes of Health since budgets began a decline in 2004.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded last spring that five years of shrinking budgets have led to an institute that is "falling further and further behind the increasing challenges and costs of biomedical research."

Last week, the Senate voted to add $400 million tacked onto President Bush's 2009 budget. That is less than the $600 million Congress added to the budget in 2007 and 2008, but better than the zero percent increase asked for by the president.

Even more acute is the situation at the Food and Drug Administration, where a report from an advisory panel described an agency in such desperate need for funding that it is in a state of near dysfunction.

The report, issued by the agency's Subcommittee on Science and Technology in January, said that the F.D.A. "cannot fulfill its mission" in part "because its scientific workforce does not have sufficient capacity and capability."

The culprit, the panel concluded, was a lack of funding and resources for an agency that oversees virtually all food and drugs American's consume. F.D.A. regulates $1 trillion of the nation's economy with a budget of $2.27 billion in 2008-about $7.50 for every American. (See my column, F.D.A. on the Brink?)

Yet the president's budget provided only a minuscule increase in the budget of the Food and Drug Administration, up $50.7 million to a total of $2.4 billion. (This includes user fees paid by drug companies asking the F.D.A. to approve new drugs.) This anemic increase does not even cover salary increases, and is also supposed to pay for several hundred new inspectors and other personnel.

The situation is so dire that a few days ago Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach-a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the president-appealed to Congress to raise his agency's budget $275 million above what his boss asked for.

Earlier, von Eschenbach faced a maelstrom of criticism of the administration's meager budget increase. He sent the request and detailed plan for spending it to Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who had asked von Eschenbach provide him with this information "to protect the public health."

According to The New York Times, Specter added in a handwritten note in the letter's margins: "Andy, I know the situation is extreme. I want to get you financial help now."

The Senate responded with a rather paltry increase of about $72 million for the F.D.A. Again, that's better than nothing, though the January report and others have called for much steeper increases, along with major reforms in how the agency is organized and how it works.

In a demonstration of how tough it is to get science funded in the Bush II era, Senate leaders tucked both budget increases into a $156 billion war and veterans' appropriations bill. That measure passed the Senate by a wide enough margin to override a threatened veto from the president. The House didn't include the raise in its version of the bill, but is expected to agree to the increase in conference.

Like so many other things, the task of recovering from Bush's distressing disinterest in science will be left to the next president.

Merely spending money, however, will not restore the waning prestige and power of American science, as articulated by Baltimore and Varmus. Nor will it insure that the life sciences in America will continue to produce breakthroughs and treatments that have benefited millions of people.

What is needed is leadership from the White House and Congress in ensuring that our federal medical research and oversight establishment is the best it can be, and that it's funding is adequate to as much benefit to people in the future as it has to generations past.

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