Introducing the senator, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins recalled, “Sen. Mikulski promised in a legendary statement that she was going to work her earrings off for NIH. Nothing has ever been truer.”
In Masur Auditorium at an assembly of employees, Mikulski declared, “I’m back and you’ll notice that I have no earrings on!”
The outlook had been bleak when the senator stopped by in the first quarter of 2013. NIH was set to suffer a 5 percent budget cut in the first fiscal year alone of sequestration, with even more sizable cuts in the following years. Collins outlined the effects: Grants already approved would go unfunded in nearly every region of the nation, promising avenues of research would go unexplored and fewer patients would be admitted to the Clinical Center. What was worse though, Collins said, was the instability and unreliability of funding in general. Scientists—some in the earliest stages of their careers—not knowing whether they could count on NIH support, would leave the research arena altogether.
In the succeeding months, working across political party lines and across both houses of Congress, the senior senator from Maryland managed to get the draconian cuts cancelled for NIH for FY 2014 and 2015.
|NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and NIH intramural scientists stand behind Mikulski as she addresses a Masur Auditorium assembly on Feb. 24.
Mikulski’s recent NIH visit began with briefings on research with several scientists. At top right, Dr. Carole Sourbier, a research fellow in NCI’s Urologic Oncology Branch, shows Mikulski results from a study of type 2 papillary kidney cancer.
Photos: Bill Branson, Ernie Branson
“Sen. Mikulski’s tireless efforts on our behalf have helped ensure that our important mission will go forward again at full strength after what has been a very difficult 10-year period of loss of purchasing power for research,” Collins said. “She did this, orchestrating a feat that many thought would be impossible in our time. She secured a bipartisan compromise on the federal budget.”
In January, Congress passed a 2014 omnibus appropriation bill that included a $1 billion increase for NIH above the post-sequester level.
“While we still have a ways to go to make up for the losses that have happened over the last 10 years,” Collins explained, “we can finally breathe a sigh of relief that the downward spiral of support is drawing to an end. A corner has been turned and so, senator, we really want to thank you.”
On stage with Mikulski, Collins said, were several grateful scientists—“just a few of NIH’s finest, eight of the thousands of researchers that we support who are making new discoveries every day.”
Mikulski assured NIH’ers that she and other lawmakers were well aware of the various hardships the workforce had endured over the last year, noting not only the drastic spending cuts but also the 16-day government shutdown that furloughed 74 percent of NIH employees last fall.
Mikulski said she—working with fellow lawmakers Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Reps. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Paul Ryan (R-WI)—were able to “stare down the shutdown crowd” to get a bipartisan budget agreement.
“For this year,” she continued, “we know that first of all there’ll be certainty—no sequester…and no shutdown in fiscal 2014.”
Mikulski tours a lab of the NCI Urologic Oncology Branch with (from l) research fellow Dr. Christopher Ricketts, branch chief Dr. W. Marston Linehan and Dr. Ram Srinivasan, head of the branch’s molecular cancer section.
For upcoming appropriation battles, Mikulski said her top priority is “to make sure we preserve innovation, opportunity and social justice. We want to promote innovation particularly in life sciences.”
Concluding her remarks before taking questions, Mikulski said, “Everywhere that I travel—in my own state and throughout the country—the National Institutes of Health is the most well known and the most revered institution in the federal government. You are beloved…because they know that every day and every way you wake up not thinking about you. You wake up thinking about we the people and how to help people have opportunity and hope when they face medical situations.”
Responding to a query about what it will take to motivate other lawmakers to increase federal science spending, the senator encouraged her colleagues in Congress to listen to “the compelling human need” voiced by constituents and to visit medical schools in individual communities. NIH, she pointed out, funds centers of scientific excellence in every state across the country via its extramural research program.
Mikulski also said she intends to hold a hearing on the state of research and innovation in the U.S., both to inform legislators and to offer them more incentives to boost federal science budgets.
“I think we need the will and I think we can find the wallet,” she said.
Mikulski left the auditorium to a standing ovation. Her talk can be seen at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=13604&bhcp=1.