Specter’s Party Flip Hides Big Re-Election Push for Research

May 3rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

Senator Arlen Specter’s recent decision to rejoin the Democratic party (he was a member in the 1960s), attracted a fair amount of attention this week.  What did not was his effort to give yet another boost to National Institutes of Health funding and create another biomedical research agency. Senator Specter wants to reset the baseline of the NIH to $40 billion (roughly the amount of the current NIH budget plus the $10 billion increase from the stimulus bill.  $6.5 billion of that $10 billion was courtesy of the Senator).  In addition to this permanent 1/3 increase in the NIH budget, Specter wants to establish a new agency, the Cures Acceleration Network, to help translational research.  This is research to facilitate converting the knowledge of scientific discoveries into usable cures.  Specter uses the phrase “valley of death” to refer to this kind of research, though readers may be more familiar with that phrase in a more general context of commercializing university research.

The plan can be found on a new website, SpecterForTheCure.com.  The domain name should tip you off that this is a campaign website, you can see the copyright notice for Citizens for Arlen Specter.  Nothing wrong with that, I note it because I have a hard time recalling other instances where research as an issue factored in a campaign for office when an initiative or other measure was not also on the ballot.  Specter will introduce legislation soon, if he hasn’t already, but press reports indicate the new agency would be funded at $2 billion under the legislation, and serve as an independent federal agency, like NASA.  It would be outside the NIH or the Health and Human Services Department.

I have my doubts that the bill will go anywhere.  The bill isn’t cheap, and Specter’s former colleagues might feel like blocking any of his bills for his defection.  While translational research could use some additional support, it is unclear that the independent research board and $2 billion per year is the best way for addressing the problem.  And while few at the NIH would object to a permanent $10 billion boost to the agency’s baseline, there would be growing pains that I doubt the agency is in a good position to handle.  That may be proven wrong if NIH handles the stimulus funding well.

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