Specter Pledges (Again) to Boost NIH

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) appeared today before a biomedical lobby group to reiterate a pledge he made last week to boost the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Speaking on Capitol Hill before the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research Funding, Specter--chair of the subcommittee that drafts NIH's appropriation--said he hoped to secure a $952 million raise for NIH research in 1998--an increase of 7.5% over the amount NIH will spend on research in 1997, in a total budget of $12.75 billion. Last year, NIH received a 6.9% raise, seen as large at the time because other research agencies received little or no increase.

"I think 7.5% is doable. ... Maybe we can add a little more, but I don't want to make a commitment on it," Specter told reporters and policy experts at a breakfast meeting today. "I want to see to what extent my colleagues come forward and support" other proposals to increase NIH funding through 2003, he added.

Specter's pledge is remarkable on several counts. It goes against the normal order of appropriations, which calls for the House, not the Senate, to make initial spending proposals. It also breaks with congressional decorum, in which heads of committees generally avoid naming money goals before political negotiations get under way. For these reasons, the announcement caught the experts off guard. One of the most influential lobby groups, for example, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, had anticipated a tough year and, in December, asked for an increase of a mere 6.5% for NIH.

While unusual, Specter's promise hasn't been the only Republican gesture of support for science since the inauguration. Last week, Senator Connie Mack (R-FL) proposed doubling NIH's budget over 5 years, and Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) sought a commitment to double the funding of a dozen federal research agencies over the next decade. It remains to be seen whether any of these gestures will produce cold cash.