WASHINGTON, March 2 - While President George W. Bush’s proposed $2.8 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health in his budget has been heralded as a boon for scientific research, the proposal is far less generous with other scientific agencies, critics noted.
Under Bush's plan, the Department of Energy, a key player in the Human Genome Project, would take a 3.6 percent hit. Additionally, the National Science Foundation will receive a mere 2.3 percent increase to $4.5 billion. Funding would be suspended for the Advanced Technology Program at the Department of Commerce, which funds high-risk, innovative research projects for private companies.
These proposed numbers have angered advocates for funding science, such as Congressman David Obey (D-Wisc.), who has called for a doubling of the NSF budget. "It's a concern that [the president] wants to put a huge tax cut for the wealthy in front of much-needed investments in science and research," said Kori Bernards, a spokesperson for Obey.
Meanwhile, officials at the DOE, NSF, and other organizations are trying to figure out how to shelter their genomics efforts from any funding shortfalls.
"We will certainly try very hard to protect the genome research, because in my program it's the highest priority," said Ari Patrinos, associate director of the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research. Patrinos said that his goal would be to ensure that the genomics program funding remains at least flat, despite cuts elsewhere.
Maryanna Henkart, director of the NSF’s molecular and cellular biology division, expressed a similar concern for prioritizing genomics research regardless of funding issues. "We're certainly going to promote genomics research, because that's the future, she said. “No matter what our budget is, we're still going to go forward.”
Bioinformatics efforts at the NSF, for which the agency has planned $15 to 20 million in funding, are also expected to move ahead despite the constrained budget picture. W. Phillips Adrion of NSF's Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Directorate said bioinformatics programs would be a high priority for 2002.
But other genomics-related programs may not be salvageable if the new proposal is accepted.
The administration signaled in the budget blueprint that it would be taking aim at certain public-private partnerships in which the DOE is involved. "Research and development projects that subsidize large companies will be suspended or revisited, " the DOE section of the plan stated. In January, a supercomputer collaboration agreement was signed between the DOE's Sandia National Laboratories, Compaq Computer, and Celera.
Another source of R&D funding for private companies involved in genomics could also dry up if the ATP program is suspended. This program allocated $144 million last year for 54 projects, including a number in genomics and bioinformatics. More than 100 new technologies, such as the DNA chips developed by Affymetrix, have been commercialized as a result of the program.
The proposal to pull the plug on the ATP has already drawn fire among congressional advocates.
"It would be short-sighted to get rid of this program," said Andy Davis, spokesperson for Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), the ranking democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. "The ATP makes it possible to take leading-edge research and make it commercially viable, maybe develop new industries.”
Davis noted that countries such as Japan and Korea have similar programs that provide as much as 100 percent of R&D funding to innovative ventures. “The ATP program is a way to help the United States economy remain competitive," he said.
But not everybody in the scientific community is upset about the budget proposal’s scientific priorities. "The significant increase for NIH is very important,” said Sharon Cohen, vice president for health policy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “It's part of the overall view that it's about 10 years out before the baby boomers turn 65. So increase NIH first, and then work on prescription drug benefits. It's a good building block towards having the armamentarium we need in place when the society starts rapidly aging."