Newt Gingrich recently recalled the bipartisan deal that doubled the budget for the National Institutes of Health -- with fondness. This was about 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton was president, and Republicans under Gingrich had just taken over Congress.
Never a member of the Gingrich fan club, I nonetheless join other liberal-minded observers in hailing the former House speaker not only for not disowning that investment in national greatness but for urging an encore. Gingrich, bless his black little heart, wants the budget doubled again.
About the National Institutes of Health: The NIH is the U.S. agency in charge of biomedical and health-related research. It has 27 institutes and centers, each specializing in its own area -- cancer, eyes, allergies, the list goes on.
The NIH has about 6,000 of its own scientists and provides grants for about 300,000 research workers across the country. Its in-house research makes it the biggest biomedical research facility in the world.
The list of NIH triumphs is long. More than a century ago, its scientists developed a diphtheria antitoxin. More recently, they won the international race to crack the genetic code. They've fostered vaccines against hepatitis.
So why has funding for NIH been flat since 2003? Because conservative ideologues, in their quest to cut government, don't much care to distinguish between things that should be cut and things that should not be cut.
The NIH budget over the past 12 years has, in effect, fallen 20 percent. Seeing as over 90 percent of the money goes directly to research, that's a huge hit on America's ability to compete in the biomedical sciences. No, the private sector won't pick up the slack. This is basic research.
Gingrich makes the case that federal support for medical research is a moral, as well as financial, issue. Good man, and guess he's not running for president this time around.
But the financial piece of the argument is not insignificant. The biggest item in the federal budget is health care. Medicare and Medicaid alone cost taxpayers over $1 trillion a year. An investment in research could bring a high return in savings.
Gingrich offers this example: Over the next four decades, the cost of caring for Alzheimer's patients is expected to jump 420 percent for Medicare and 330 percent for Medicaid.
"Delaying the average onset of the disease by just five years," he writes, "would reduce the number of Americans with Alzheimer's in 2050 by 42 percent, and cut costs by a third."
Note that these calculations don't assume a cure for Alzheimer's disease. That would be wonderful and could happen only if the dollars are spent on research. Today even a billionaire is fairly helpless against the ravages of Alzheimer's. NIH-sponsored research could address diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well.
As Gingrich notes, the NIH is "pioneering the development of immunotherapies, which are already allowing doctors to spur patients' immune systems to attack cancer and other diseases rather than relying solely on surgery, radiation and chemotherapy."
NIH researchers have recently discovered a new gene for hepatitis C. Hard to control, hepatitis C often ends in serious liver disease, leaving a liver transplant the only option. Someday gene-based therapies may take the place of these super-expensive operations.
Set aside the potential savings in health care dollars. These therapies can free patients from the grueling treatments now deemed the only hope for containing dread diseases.
Still, there remain ideologues in Congress who would shrink the NIH in service of some simple-minded belief that government is bad. We should ask them to explain themselves.