Conservatives leading push to increase funding for National Institutes of Health

Deficit hawk lawmakers have found something they want to spend money on: medical research.

They say they want to cure cancer and other diseases by boosting the budget for the National Institutes of Health, and they argue that investing in those cures now will save taxpayer money later by lowering health care costs over time.

Spearheaded by conservatives in the Republican-controlled Congress, the unlikely campaign has the potential to unite both parties in a common cause and give the NIH its best chance at substantial budget growth in more than a decade. At stake is billions of dollars in grant money that could end up at research institutions in lawmakers’ own backyards.

“I’m making the case for NIH funding on conservative principles, not only from a moral standpoint but an economic one as well,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who swept into office on a wave of tea party support in 2010. He said budget discussions should be not only about spending cuts, but also about re-prioritizing the money that is spent.

“There are other conservatives speaking out, so I feel like there’s some momentum growing,” Yoder said in an interview this week.

Yoder has suggested doubling the annual budget for the NIH from $30.1 billion to $60 billion, a goal echoed this week in a New York Times op-ed penned by Newt Gingrich. The op-ed called on Gingrich’s fellow Republicans in Congress to boost NIH funding, as they did when he was speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s.

“Doubling the institutes’ budget once again would be a change on the right scale,” Gingrich wrote, “although that increase should be accompanied by reforms to make the NIH less bureaucratic.”

NIH funding has remained relatively flat over the past decade. Adjusted for inflation, the institutes’ $30.1 billion annual budget is about 20 percent less than it was in 2003.

That means fewer grants for ground-breaking research and fewer dollars to fund jobs in laboratories or training programs for aspiring scientists and researchers, said Richard Barohn, vice chancellor for research at University of Kansas Medical Center.

Barohn visited Capitol Hill this week, where he spoke with Yoder and another Kansas lawmaker, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, at a reception hosted by KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

“As Republicans who are very fiscally conscious, they really get it,” Barohn said.

“We want medical research and bio-research to be a significant component of the Kansas economy,” Moran said in an interview.

Tea party activists are skeptical. Lawmakers need to address fraud and abuse in NIH’s existing budget before doling out more money, said Katrina Pierson, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC.

But conservatives, like all politicians, too often compromise their principles for pet projects, Pierson said.

“Unfortunately I think they’re pushing for a bigger increase in the (NIH) budget overall with absolutely no control over what the money is spent on. Let’s say they do get the budget doubled, and then they spend the money on getting monkeys high on cocaine,” she said, alluding to a $3.2 million NIH study on tissue damage in inebriated monkeys. “That’s not really for the greater good.”

Moran said he isn’t sacrificing principles for pork, though.

“It’s not fiscally irresponsible to be pursuing medical research because it will save us money in the long term and we’re willing to offer up places where we cut elsewhere,” he said. “We all have our priorities. That’s what a Congress is about.”