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."