Today’s news include the passing of Arlen Specter, former Senator from Pennsylvania. Most of the obituaries will focus on his important role in Supreme Court nomination fights, the impeachment of President Clinton, being one of only 3 Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act and for supporting NIH, including stem cell, breast cancer, Alzheimer disease research. All this is true of course. But when it comes to NIH, his contribution is so much greater.
When Specter came to Congress in 1983, the NIH budget was about $3.6 billion. Now, it is about $30 billion. Much of that increase is due to the year-in-year-out work on the Appropriations Committees of which Senator Specter was a leader…for all areas of research. His staff was always open and interested in how basic biomedical research can be expanded. Specter was part of a cadre of Republicans in the 80s and 90s which included Lowell Weicker, Pete Domenici, and, in the House of Representatives, Silvio Conte, who continually worked with Democratic allies like Senator Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, Dave Obey and William Natcher to grow NIH. These Members had a huge respect for NIH, often referring to it as the “crown jewel” of the federal government. They understood that biomedical was an engine not only to improve treatments and cure diseases but to support drug and device developers, the biotech industry, hospitals, the health professions and others grow and prosper. Unfortunately, today, we do not have a similar senior cadre with the same commitment to biomedical research. And, as a result, the NIH budget is stagnant. There are great shoes which other Members of Congress can, and should, fill.