Patrick White

Patrick White

ACTforNIH

New Washington player joins push for NIH funding

Scores of patient groups, scientific societies, and university coalitions devote much of their time to lobbying the U.S. Congress for more funding for biomedical research and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This week another group, ACT for NIH: Advancing Cures Today, joined their ranks.

The organization stands out for a few reasons: It was launched with largesse from a new face, New York City and Houston, Texas, real estate investor Jed Manocherian, whose time on the Board of Visitors of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston stoked his concern about NIH’s past decade of flat funding. Its all-star advisory board includes Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore and MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho. And it is headed by biomedical science lobbying veteran Patrick White, who has spent more than 2 decades working on Capitol Hill, in government, and for various research interest groups. Until 3 months ago, White was the top legislative aide to NIH Director Francis Collins.

White discussed his organization’s plans with ScienceInsider. (The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity).

Q: Why now?

A: The U.S. biomedical research enterprise is in crisis. NIH has lost 25% of its purchasing power since 2003 due to flat budgets and cuts. We are losing a generation of young scientists. People are shutting down their labs. They’re laying people off and delaying equipment purchases. This is hurting our economy and job creation and growth. And we are doing this to ourselves at a time when other countries are making serious efforts in terms of upping their investments in biomedical research.

Q: Lots of other groups make those same arguments. Why not just throw in with them?

A: A lot of other groups do very good work but they also have a broader agenda. We are trying to bring a laserlike focus to the issue of NIH funding. What we aim to do is work directly with key lawmakers [in Congress] who are interested in trying to address this challenge. And what we’re doing is complementary to what the rest of the community is doing.

I haven’t talked to a single member of Congress who is opposed to more biomedical research funding. There’s been a shift in the tone in the last 2 years where more and more members of Congress are willing to have an open discussion about our disinvestment in NIH.

And so in what is overall a quite bleak picture, I think some members now are realizing we need to do something. That’s the opportunity that I’m trying to seize.

Q: Talk a little bit about tactics.

A: The idea is to identify and work with members on both sides of the aisle who over the last 3 to 5 years have either done or said important things about the state of NIH funding and essentially to open a dialogue with them and see if there isn’t some sort of possibility of a consensus to try and address the funding crisis.

Do we have a plan? Do we have a legislative proposal for how we’re going to fix this? We do not. But there have been amazing conversations in NIH’s appropriations hearings over the last couple of years, where members have started talking about other sources of revenue. There’s even been discussion of perhaps some kind of mandatory funding. We’re not endorsing or pushing anything. We just want to see something good and something significant happen to turn this around.

Q: Does your group have a planned lifespan?

A: We actually don’t intend to be in business for a long time. We’re sort of looking at this as an 18-month to maybe 2-year process. My charge is to succeed or fail, and do so quickly.