Democrats balk at president’s budget plan on autism, cancer

Powerful Democratic appropriators are opposing President Obama’s proposed funding boost for autism and cancer programs, claiming it would inject politics into scientific research.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) are questioning Obama’s proposal to increase National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for cancer by 5 percent and autism research by 16 percent, arguing that it goes against Congress’s traditional approach to science. Historically, lawmakers have avoided setting aside money to research cures for specific diseases in an attempt to leave those decisions to scientists.

The appropriators’ worry is that politicians will start picking what diseases to fund without regard to the evidence.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama’s budget calls for boosting total NIH funding by 1.5 percent — an increase of $443 million — to nearly $31 billion.

Obama has proposed increasing cancer research funding by $268 million, to approximately $6 billion. The president is seeking to boost funding for autism research by $19 million, to $141 million.

Harkin wondered whether so much money should go into two diseases alone.

“I’ve fought as hard as anyone for more money for cancer research, but there are other devastating diseases, too,” he said during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on NIH funding last month.

Obey said that the result of determining funding levels for research of one disease over another will lead to “political chaos in an area that ought to be determined by science.”

“I think virtually all of us are more comfortable with the final decisions being made on the basis of what peer-reviewed process leads us to the best scientific judgments, as opposed to doing a political balancing act,” Obey said during a hearing on Obama’s budget request Tuesday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration is attempting a “balancing act” of respecting science while trying to find cures for autism and cancer. She said that Obama “fully supports letting science guide the research,” but she also noted that the president has a personal experience involving cancer: His mother died at the age of 52 after a bout with ovarian cancer.

“I do know that the president personally feels very strongly about the opportunity to cure cancer in his lifetime and has talked about that for years, based, I think in large part, on his personal experience,” Sebelius said.

DeLauro said Tuesday that lawmakers share Obama’s goal of eliminating cancer, noting that she too is a cancer survivor. But the lawmaker said she preferred to avoid the “earmarking of autism and cancer.”

Obey said that appropriators, regardless of party, have “steadfastly insisted that allocations to research on diseases be handled by scientists rather than politicians.”

“And so we have always resisted efforts to direct a specific amount of funding at a specific disease,” he added.

But advocates for cancer treatment said the administration has the right focus, even if it is bucking tradition.

ADVERTISEMENT
The American Cancer Society (ACS) noted that cancer will kill more than 565,000 Americans and cost $200 billion this year.

“By investing in cancer research, Congress has the power to support promising scientific initiatives that can lead to breakthroughs in prevention, early detection and treatment that will save lives and reduce healthcare costs,” said David Pugach, associate director of federal relations for ACS’s Cancer Action Network, the group’s advocacy arm.

Political fights over scientific research spending are not new. In 2003, then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) sponsored an amendment seeking to cut money for studies on sexual behavior. Toomey’s amendment barely failed in the GOP-controlled House.

A spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) noted that all diseases benefited earlier this year from the $10 billion investment in the NIH in the stimulus package. NIH research for diseases other than autism and cancer will also increase next year under the president’s proposal, by $154 million.

“We understand the committee’s interest in avoiding disease-specific funding requests,” said Bill Hall, the HHS spokesman. “By the same token, and consistent with his campaign promises, the president feels very strongly about the opportunity to combat cancer and to expand support for children, families and communities affected by autism spectrum disorders.”