Scientists Send Petition to NIH Over Concerns About Shift in Funds to Bioterrorism Research
Hundreds of scientists on Monday sent a petition to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni over concerns that the shift of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds toward bioterrorism research has reduced funds for research on other bacteria that cause public health problems, the New York Times reports.
According to the 758 scientists, who have received grants from NIH or have served on committees to award grants in the areas of bacteriology and mycology, federal funds for research on bacteria that are rare or nonexistent in the United States, such as anthrax, have increased fifteenfold since 2001 (Shane, New York Times, 2/28). Over the same period, grants for basic microbial research on bacteria that cause diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis have decreased by between 27% and 41%, the scientists said.
Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University scientist, compared NIH records of grant approvals in the four years before and after the policy shift to obtain the data. "The diversion of research funds from projects of high public health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiologist research," the petition said.
Bonnie Bassler, a Princeton microbiological who signed the petition, said, "Five people died in the anthrax attacks, but thousands and millions die from malaria and cholera and all kinds of other infectious diseases every year, including many in this country." She added, "There are microbes much worse than anthrax and in the long run America is going to suffer from these decisions" (Weiss, Washington Post, 3/1).
Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- which accounts for about 95% of agency funds spent on bioterrorism research -- questioned the accuracy of the petition.
According to Fauci, the $1.5 billion that the Bush administration in 2003 began to allocate annually for bioterrorism research was new and not taken from other NIH programs. He added that a large part of the bioterrorism research also should help protect the public against other health problems, such as a potential influenza pandemic.
"The United States through its leaders made the decision that this money was going to be spent on biodefense," Fauci said, adding that if the institutes had not taken the additional funding, it would have been spent by other departments for similar purposes but without the influence of NIH scientists using the regular grant-review process.
Zerhouni declined to comment on the petition (New York Times, 3/1).