“My cup runneth over,” said Porter, who spoke at the culmination of a program that included current and former institute directors and two senators, in addition to Collins, who, in view of the honoree’s 21 years of ardent support of NIH on Capitol Hill, pleaded, “Mr. Porter, would you consider coming back to the Congress?”
|Featured speakers at the dedication included (from l) Porter, Sen. Tom Harkin, Collins, NINDS director Dr. Story Landis, NIDCD director Dr. James Battey and NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel.
“My principal purpose will be to thank you all,” said Porter, 78, who left Congress in 2001 having not only chaired the committee overseeing NIH’s appropriations for 6 years, but also having helped spearhead the doubling of NIH’s budget during the period 1998-2003. He apologized for the 10 years that passed—without any dedication ceremony—since phase I was completed. The lag was due in part, he said, to 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I have to own up to the delay…I had some hair then,” he quipped.
The atrium of the new Porter Bldg. was turned into a kind of auditorium for the dedication. Many viewed the proceedings from the upper floors.
Photos: Bill Branson, Ernie Branson
The dedication ceremony had originally been scheduled for October 2013, but the government shutdown postponed it as the bulk of NIH’s employees were deemed non-essential during the 16-day hiatus. “What nonsense!” roared Porter. “This is the most essential place.”
He remembered an era on the Hill when NIH leaders spent more than 3 weeks every spring in hearings before appropriators, explaining NIH’s work. “Today, I think there’s 2 hours for the whole of NIH. It’s a travesty,” he said. “The job of an appropriator is to learn…I don’t know how you can do that without having hearings.”
Porter said science fascinated him from an early age—as a teenager he left the Christian Science religion over its resistance to the then-new polio vaccine—and still turns first to science articles in the morning newspapers. Although he grew up in a political family—his father was a judge—Porter tended toward science and history. “I was not really a very good politician,” he said, but then quoted Louis Pasteur on the favor chance bestows on a prepared mind. Of his ability to work effectively on behalf of science, he explained, “I was in the right place, at the right time, under the right circumstances, with the right motivation.”
One of those moments occurred in 1995, when the House was in Republican control for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich was speaker. Gingrich proposed successive cuts to NIH’s budget of 5 percent, for 5 years, Porter recalled. “I thought that was insane, absolutely insane,” Porter said. Gingrich agreed to hear an appeal from distinguished scientists and pharmaceutical companies and conceded that he had made a terrible mistake.
|FNIH’s Dr. Charles Sanders offers toast as FNIH’s Dr. Maria Freire (l) and the Porters look on.
Porter proudly recounted that, in those lean times, he was able to wrangle a 5.7 percent increase in NIH’s budget rather than a cut, then additions of 6.9 and 7.1 percent in the next 2 years, followed by 15 percent boosts over the next 5 years, which resulted in the doubling of NIH’s budget.
He decried the current political climate of austerity and sequestration. “Regular order [of floor voting on House amendments], hearings and making judgments about what is good and bad based on evidence is all gone,” he said. “There is no courage in Congress today…NIH is getting along, but not very well.”
He concluded his remarks with a plea to non-NIH scientists, who are free to lobby Congress on behalf of NIH’s budget.
“To me, now is the time” for scientists to speak out across America in support of medical research, he said. “Advocates here in the capital can only do so much…Scientists are the most respected people in America. They live…in districts funded by NIH. They will be listened to if they only engage with their member of Congress and make a difference.”
Porter said advocates “shouldn’t advocate in terms of their career,” but rather the larger goal of human health. “If scientists don’t defend science,” he argued, “how can you expect other people to do so?...You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and impact decisions made on the Hill.”
|Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA, l) and Porter admire the new facility.
Porter predicted “great things” for the science done in the building that bears his name, but said “it cannot be done without resources.”
Now chair of Research!America and vice chair of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, he announced plans for a national campaign to reach all Americans about the importance of science.
“Each one of us has to be involved,” Porter said. “Let’s work together to put science and research at our country’s highest priority. Now is the time to do it!”
The ceremony ended with Collins presenting Porter with a dedicatory plaque and portrait of the new facility. Afterwards, at a brief reception, FNIH board chair Dr. Charles A. Sanders offered a toast in verse:
Here’s to our own John Porter
Whose name is now enshrined in mortar.
A name we’ll long remember with no trouble
For the NIH budget he did double.
May all who enter to discover a cure
Receive treatments that will long endure.
Let we, among thousands whose lives he affects
Salute John Porter with our highest respects.
Speakers Comment on Porter, Facility
- “If you seek out this public servant’s legacy, you will not find it here in the steel and the bricks and the mortar. You will find it in his legacy—in the countless medicines, therapies, treatments that have flowed from the dazzling discoveries here at NIH. You will find it in sharply lower death rates for heart disease and stroke and cancer. You will find it in the tireless, sustained, effective advocacy for biomedical research across 3½ decades in and out of government by John Edward Porter.”—Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)
- “I’m really thrilled that this [new building] is going to be helping other Americans,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Porter’s former chief of staff who suffered a major stroke in 2012 but has recovered and returned to Congress. He touted “the Porter legacy of accelerated and additional funding for NIH, America’s gift to mankind and the future of patients everywhere.”
|Guest speakers included (from l) Sen. Mark Kirk (who spoke via videotape), Dr. Steven Hyman and Dr. Gerald Fischbach.
- “This is a spectacular new building. But it’s much more than a building for us. This is a new culture for the way that we do science. This building is more than just interdisciplinary…the building is not organized by institute, it’s organized by the question you’re asking, the equipment you need, by the problem you’re trying to solve…[This is] absolutely the best place and space to do that.”—NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel
- NIDCD director Dr. James Battey expressed gratitude that the new building will allow roughly half of his intramural program to move to Porter from expensive leased space 12 miles from campus.
- “The science that goes on here will be even better than the occasion and the building.”—NINDS director Dr. Story Landis
- “John Porter has in many ways helped the NIH reach a new level of functioning…Most of all, for me, [he is] a role model…His steadfast support has really been extraordinary.”—former NINDS director Dr. Gerald Fischbach
- “The late Ruth Kirschstein took me aside and, in a grandmotherly way, she said, ‘Steve, it looks too nice. We’re gonna get in trouble.’…I think [the building] will be remarkably positive for science.”—former NIMH director Dr. Steven Hyman
- “Will you be a white knight for the Human Genome Project?” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins remembers asking Porter back before the HGP was launched. “Without hesitation he said, ‘Yes, I will.’ That was a profound turning point for me personally.”
For more about the building and the event, visit www.nih.gov/about/porter/index.htm.