NEW YORK--What with inflation, budget cutting, burgeoning grant
applications, and dueling disease advocacy groups, it isn't easy
being director of the National Institutes of Health. Harold E.
Varmus, MD, gave an audience at the Irvington Institute a peek
at what he is up against.
First, he must deal with the lengthy federal budgetary process:
"I negotiate with the directors of the Institutes, then with
the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); then HHS goes
to the Office of Management and Budget. We also negotiate with
the White House Office of Science and Technology."
The President's budget has to be approved by a Republican Congress,
"so we have to go to various House and Senate committees
to get our appropriations. These appropriations ultimately come
from subcommittees that have jurisdiction over other well-intentioned
programs such as education and labor, so we are competing for
the same money."
This year's budgetary process was a roller coaster of unprecedented
difficulty, he said.
The new NIH budget is $11.9 billion. "Yes, that's B for billion,"
Dr. Varmus said. Most of it goes to researchers in 1,700 universities
and centers across the country; 10% goes to government NIH scientists.
Some has already been promised to research projects that last
for several years.
Although in real dollars the NIH annual budget has gone up, its
buying power has remained static for several years because of
the 4% inflation rate, Dr. Varmus said. Combine these factors
with increasing number of grant applications and plans to cut
a third of the NIH budget, and there is a real threat to the nation's
research infrastructure, he said.
The bottom line is that the Institute needs fewer grant applications
and more supporters, he said. "Biomedicine is very attractive
these days. It's in a period of intellectual ferment. Therefore,
the number of biomedical scientists has dramatically increased
relative to the number of other workers."