Baldwin says bill would strengthen US research

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Tuesday she plans to sponsor legislation that would strengthen America’s commitment to research, science and innovation.

The Wisconsin Democrat said she grew concerned after hearing Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, bemoan a decade of funding reductions along with this year’s sequestration cuts that slash $1.5 billion from the NIH budget. Continued cuts would disproportionately affect younger researchers, putting an entire generation of new scientists at risk, Baldwin said.

Baldwin said her bill is intended to determine how to maintain research funding at levels that keep the U.S. competitive with other science-focused countries. She plans to introduce the measure next month when the Senate reconvenes.

The Next Generation Research Act would create an initiative within the NIH tasked with evaluating and improving the way research dollars are allocated. It would also evaluate factors that might dissuade young scientists from pursuing a career in research, and recommend to Congress and the NIH ways to get around or eliminate those barriers.

Baldwin said the measure is a policy bill, not a funding bill, so there’s not a dollar figure associated with it. She also said she hears plenty of bipartisan support for funding science research, even from the most fiscally conservative lawmakers, and she hopes that support translates into action.

“I hope we can set the stage for funding to make this a reality,” she told several dozen researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

She said the current system for awarding grants is skewed in favor of older researchers, who have a body of work they can use to solicit more funds. Younger researchers end up working deeper into their careers before they can expect to get an NIH grant, she said.

She also expressed frustration with policy makers who don’t always understand the value of certain forms of research. A bureaucrat might be willing to fund research for a cancer cure — but not a purely scientific study that determines how cancer cells reproduce, even though the knowledge from that study might lead to a cure.

Several of the Milwaukee medical school’s researchers shared the senator’s concerns about grants. Some noted that big-name institutions seem to land research grants far more easily than smaller ones do, enabling the rich to get richer. Others said that certain research doesn’t have immediate marketability, so free-market funding and venture capital aren’t always an option.

“Without the NIH this collapses — private industry cannot and will not” fund all forms of research, said Allen Cowley Jr., the chairman of the medical school’s physiology department.

While Baldwin called for increased U.S. spending on research, she acknowledged the difficulty of securing research dollars in an era of scaled-back spending. But she said lawmakers need to understand that science research isn’t strictly and expense because it eventually pays for itself.

She said she plans to seek Republican co-sponsors for her Senate bill, and that early discussions are underway for a companion bill in the House.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org.

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