A true champion of basic biomedical research: A conversation with Rep. John E. Porter, United States House of Representatives

A true champion of basic biomedical research: A conversation with Rep. John E. Porter, United States House of Representatives
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  See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: A true champion of basic biomedical research: Aconversation with Rep. John E. Porter, UnitedStates House of...  Article   in  The Anatomical Record · January 2000 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0185(19991215)257:6<191::AID-AR4>3.0.CO;2-O · Source: PubMed CITATIONS 3 READS 11 1 author:Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects: Molecular mechanisms of memory in primate perirhinal cortex   View projectGlobal Neuroscience   View projectJames L OldsNational Science Foundation 81   PUBLICATIONS   1,288   CITATIONS   SEE PROFILE All content following this page was uploaded by James L Olds on 04 January 2015. The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.  INTERVIEW ATrueChampionofBasicBiomedicalResearch AConversationwithRep.JohnE.Porter,UnitedStatesHouseofRepresentatives JAMESL.OLDS *  J   ohn Edward Porter is a moderate republican congressman who rep- resents Illinois’ 10 th Congressional district, the relatively well-off north side ofsuburbanChicago.Yetinrecentyears, he has become the single most impor-tant champion for basic biomedical research in the U.S. Congress. As Chair-man of the powerful House Labor, Edu- cation, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, Porter  hasshepherdedtheNIHbudgetthroughthe largest growth-spurt of its history. Last year’s $15 billion budget put the NIH well on its way towards Porter’s often-stated goal of doubling the NIH budget from its FY97 appropriation.Porter received his undergraduate de- gree from Northwestern University in1957 and his JD from the University of Michigan in 1961. He was elected for the first time to the U.S. House of  Representatives in 1980. Prior to his election, he served in the U.S. ArmySignal Corps Reserve, the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, and the Illinois General Assembly. In additionto his Chairmanship of the committeethat appropriates NIH’s budget, Porter  also serves on the Foreign Relations, Export Financing and Related Pro- grams Appropriations Subcommittee. He is the co-Chairman of the Congres- sional Human Rights Caucus and theCongressional Task Force Against Anti-Semitism.This interview, which was conductedin the Chairman’s Capitol Hill office onOctober 5 th  , 1999, was one of his lastbefore he announced his impending retirement from Congress. Olds:  Mr. Chairman, you are thepreeminent champion for biomedicalresearch in the United States rightnow. This is an issue which clearly hastremendous bipartisan support. Towhat do you attribute that support? Porter:  First of all, the human partof the equation: The desire of all of usto improve the length of life, and tofightabattleagainstdiseasesthathavedeclared war on the human race.ThisappliesnotonlytoAmericabutit applies to the whole world.Second, the economics of it worktwo ways. The money expended inbiomedical research is repaid manytimes over, not only in terms of livessaved and length improved, but interms of health care cost savings. It ismoney very efficiently spent, probablythe best-spent money in the govern-ment anywhere.Third, we are the world’s leader inbiomedicalresearch,withresearchin-stitutions that exist in many congres-sionaldistrictsacrossAmerica.Invest-ment in it brings the kinds of hightech,highpayingjobsthatwewantforthe future for our children and grand-children. Our investment in researchis,therefore,aninvestmentinourowneconomic well-being.Fourth, this funding can only bedone by government. We’re talkingaboutbasicresearchinmostinstances.It’s not going to be done in the privatesector. If government doesn’t give it ahigh priority and fund it, it won’thappen. And I believe that our eco-nomicfuturedependsuponourinvest-ment in technology or research andour investment in education.And lastly, the inspirational part of thisisthatthescientificpossibilities—and I’m not a scientist but I’ve listenedto scientists a great deal—have neverbeengreater.Weneedtocapturethoseadvancements as quickly as we canand turn them into the pharmaceuti-cals and the procedures and the de- vices that conquer disease. And thepossibilitiesaresogreatthatifyouaskmost Americans, almost to the personthey would say this is a very, very highpriority for our country. Olds: Obviously,thoseofuswhoareat the bench top in basic research are very grateful for what you’ve done forNIH funding, with your leadership.But how can we be more helpful toyou in getting this message out? Porter:  For many years, NIH hasbeen very strongly supported on abipartisan basis. And if you look at thefifty year history of NIH, if you look Dr. Olds is the Director of they KrasnowInstitute for Advanced Study at GeorgeMason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Heis involved heavily in science advocacyefforts on Capitol Hill, on behalf of hisinstitution, the AAA, and biomedical re-search in general.*Correspondence to: James L. Olds,Ph.D., The Krasnow Institute for Ad-vance Study, Mail Stop 2A1, George Ma-son University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444. Fax: 703–993–4325. [Biomedical researchfunding] is money veryefficiently spent,probably the best-spentmoney in thegovernment anywhere. THE ANATOMICAL RECORD (NEW ANAT.) 257:191–194, 1999  1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.  across all those years, in almost everyyear there’s been a three percent realincrease—real increase, and that’s ontop of inflation. Today, because of thepossibilities of cutting-edge science,we need to accelerate that greatly.The internal threat to the UnitedStates that was posed in by the GreatDepression; an external threat fromWorld War II; an external threat fromthe Cold War: these are gone. We areleading the world, and we should beturning our resources and attention tootherwarsthatweneedtofight.Oneisthe war on disease. And in order to dothat we have to do something thatscience has traditionally not done: selltheirworktothepublic.Istartedoutalong time ago to be a scientist—anengineer, anyway. So I know it’snotathingthatscientistsfeelcomfort-able doing, but they’ve got to sell theAmerican people on it. They’ve got tohelp  me  to sell it to the Americanpeople.Scientists know intrinsically thatbiomedical research is important be-cause every life in America istouched—every family is touchedinsomewaywithdisease.Butthepub-lic have to know what’s happening.They have to know the possibilities.They have to know that biomedicalfunding has to compete againstother priorities in the government’s judgment. And researchers have toknow that in this country—and mostpeople in this country don’t knowthis—the individual  can  make a differ-ence.Scientistscanmakeanappointmentwith a small group of their fellowresearchers. Go and see that Con-gressperson. Sit down with them. Tellthem what’s happening. Tell them whyit’s important. Maybe in their owndistrict a representative might notknow that the research is funded at alocal university through NIH grants.They need to pressure to increase thisspending. Otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult to do.Last year we made a down paymentondoublingNIHoverfiveyearswitha15%increase,thebiggestincreaseeverin both dollar terms and percentage inthe history of NIH. That’s a good start.This year we’re in the middle of aseriousfight,andIdon’tknowwhetherwe’re going to succeed or not. We’regoingtodoeverythingwepossiblycanto get to 15%.My current House appropriationsbill has a very low allocation. I wasable to mark it up only to 9.1%. Thatisn’tcomfortableforme.Iwantittobe15%.AndsowhenIgotoconference,Ihave every hope that we can increasethat and get our second down pay-ment.Andwhenyoucompound15%ayear for five years, you’ve got a 100%increase. Olds:  A lot of scientists by theirtraining are uncomfortable with thenotion of selling science to the laypublic. As a scientist myself I remem-ber from my graduate school trainingthat everything about the way my ma- jor professor acted was contrary tothat. So my question is, how do scien-tistsbreakoutofthatmold,inordertoget that message out and help people? Porter:  Well, like I said, at one timeI was a student at MIT—an engi-neer—so I think I understand a littlebitaboutbothscienceandpeoplewhowant to pursue science. It’s just likeme. Did I have to push myself to runforCongress,torunforpublicofficeatall? Was I uncomfortable with it at thestart? Of course. If you’re comfortablewitheverythingthatyoudo,you’renotchallenging yourself enough in thisworld. You’ve got to make yourself  uncomfortable . All of us have to learnskillsthatwedidn’tthinkweneededtolearn in order to get done what wewant to get done.Who better to tell a layperson whodoesn’t know about what’s going on inscience and why it’s important thanthe research scientist himself or her-self? They’re the ones that can bringthis message across. They can makethe excitement that they feel in doingthe work that they love, and enjoy andthe challenge of it, come across topeople. And so, I just say to everyonein the field, get uncomfortable, pushyourself beyond, and do somethingthat you aren’t comfortable doing.You’ll find it easy after you do it just alittle bit. And don’t just stop with theCongressman or Congresswoman. GooutandtalktotheRotaryClub.Gooutand talk to the Kiwanis. Go out andtalk to groups that’ll listen to you.There’s so much competing for peo-ple’s attention. But they have to know.Public policy in America is made bytheAmericanpeople.It’sonlyreflectedhere in Congress. We listen to what ishappening out there and it gets trans-mitted into policy. But if there’s nomessage out there, it never happenshere. It’s just got to be an effort by theresearch scientist. It’s got to be aneffort by the patient advocacy groups.It’s got to be an effort by the academiccommunityasawhole.It’sgottobeaneffort by the pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies in our country. All of us have to pull together and get thismessage out to the American peopleand raise their consciousness. But sci-entists are the ones that ought to be inthe frontline in doing that. Olds:  Turning to the NIH budget,what do you think the prospects are Rep. John E. Porter (R-Ill, 10 th Dist.), Chairmanof the Labor, Health, and Human ServicesAppropriationsCommittee,U.S.HouseofRep-resentatives. Researchers have toknow that in thiscountry—and mostpeople in this countrydon’t know this—theindividual can  make adifference. 192 THE ANATOMICAL RECORD (NEW ANAT.)  INTERVIEW  for achieving your mark, signing thefinal bill? Porter:  Well, I think the prospectsof achieving my mark are excellent. Idon’twanttoachievemycurrentmark.I want to achieve 15% . . . Olds:  Right. Porter:  . . . the mark at present isshort of that. The Senate bill has ahigher number—they had a $2 billionhigher allocation than I had to workwith. That’s a little bit short of 15%,but it’s great. And I think the Senateand House work very well together. Ithink the intent of both chairmen of the relevant committees is to reach15%.Thedifficultyisthatthisisatimewhen Congress is attempting to pro-tect the Social Security reserve and tohave some overall constraints on totalspending. That’s what we ought to do.That’s what hasn’t been done enoughin the past.I’m convinced that in any disci-plined, fiscal situation, when you haveto choose priorities, biomedical re-search will come out very high on thelist. But it is played out in this greaterarena all of the spending that thefederal government does, and so wecan’t simply assume that, because weknow it’s really wise to fund NIH,everybody else will know—membersof Congress, both the Senate and theHouse. And, I might add, the WhiteHouse. The President’s budget had a1.4% increase for NIH when you takeout inflation.So write government officials. Andnot just House and Senate members.The White House has to be impactedas well. Write a letter to the President.You won’t get a reply because he getstoomanyletters.Butitwillbecounted. Olds:  Right. Porter:  One of the things that weought to tap into is the Boards of Trusteesofallofourresearchuniversi-ties. These universities have on theirBoards prominent people in America.If they sit down and write the Presi-dent a letter, if they sit down and writetheir Senator and Representative aletter, they’re going to be listened to.Have them get engaged in this pro-cess.Butyougottoknockonthedoor.The door will never open unless it’sknocked on, and knocked on hard.And this is the time to do it. Olds:  I know that from the stand-pointofthebiomedicalpolicycommu-nity, it’s particularly difficult to accessthe White House, in great contrast toCongress—at least for the current ad-ministration, because there’s a certainamount of frustration that indicatesthat perhaps the White House isn’tinterestedinlookingatthebiomedicalcommunity.ButIguesswhatI’mgath-ering from you is that our voices areheard, albeit indirectly. Porter:  Yes. The President is one of theworld’sgreatestcounters.Hereadsthepolls.Hecountsthemessagescom-ing in. They know what’s impactingtheir decision-making processes. Andif they don’t hear from the researchcommunity,ifthere’saholethere,theywill know that also. Olds:  Let me ask you a questionaboutglobalbiomedicalresearch,thatis biomedical research within the con-text of multinational issues. There area variety of diseases like, for example,malaria, which doesn’t necessarily af-fect a lot of Americans but affectsmillionsandmillionsofpeoplearoundthe world. NIH Director Harold Var-mus expressed a great deal of interestin focusing additional effort and re-sources toward orphan diseases.What’s your sense of the degree of involvement that the United Statesshould have in studying such diseasesaround the world? And should we bedoing more of that? Porter: Ithinktheentireworldlooksat the United States as far and awaythe leader in all medical research, andyou have to live up to that. I think thatthe biomedical community thinks glo-bally. And when they see a problem,they want to investigate and see whatcan be done to solve it. There arediseases that affect only small popula-tions in the United States, but they’redevastating.Does the research community ig-nore them? No. They want to discovercures for them.Science is mostly going to succeedwhere the possibilities are the great-est. And then, because of the nature of science that’s so serendipitous to be-gin with, you can be looking for onething and find something entirely dif-ferent that has a different applicationthan you ever thought possible. So Ithink that malaria research is just asimportant to scientific research as awhole.My wife has diabetes. Do I thinkdiabetes ought to be the focus of theresearch community? Of course, and Iwant to tell them that. And I do. Andevery other member of Congress doesin the report accompanying the bill.But we don’t direct. We don’t say,you’ve got to spend a hundred milliondollars on prostate cancer researchnext year. Now, we got a lot of mem-bers that try to do that. . . Olds:  Earmarking funds for re-search. Porter:  . . . I spent forty-five min-utes last year as we finished up thefunding bill, asking a very importantmember of Congress that we not ear-mark for a particular disease. And Iconvinced him at the end of that dis-cussion not do so and why. Becauseonce we get into that business, we willhave everything determined by poli-tics, and science will go out the win-dow. And that is wrong. We’ve knownthat it is wrong on a bipartisan basis.Every chairman of this subcommitteesince the beginning of NIH has re-sisted earmarks by disease. We ex-press strong opinions, but we leave itto science to determine where thepossibilities are. And that’s where sci-ence is going to go. Our job is to try toprovide the resources. Olds:  Let me ask you a questionabout the office of NIH Director. We Who better to tell alayperson who doesn’tknow about what’s goingon in science and whyit’s important, than theresearch scientist himselfor herself? INTERVIEW  THE ANATOMICAL RECORD (NEW ANAT.) 193  now have a Nobel Laureate, a basicscientist, as NIH Director, but we’recoming to the close of the Clintonadministration and Dr. Varmus hasmentioned that he only would want tostay in office about roughly six years.The first question is: Do you think thatthe office of NIH Director should benonpartisan? Porter: Oh,absolutely.Noquestion. Olds: Andsecond:Generically,whatdo you think are the qualities thatmake for an NIH Director? Porter:  Harold Varmus has been asuperb NIH Director in my judgment.It takes a very, very special humanbeing to do this job. It’s an immense job.Again,I’mnotascientist,soyou’reasking me a question I don’t have thecomplete grasp of. But to me it takes aperson of great sincerity and credibil-itytostartwith.Theyhavetodealwithsomanydifferentopinionsaboutwhatshould be done and bring people to-gether in the form of some kind of consensus. He or she has to have a very deep and quick understanding of science. And has to be up to speed inso many different areas. With science,like anything else, you become a spe-cialist in one area. But the NIH Direc-tor has to sit down with that specialistand get into his head most of thebroaderconceptsthatthatspecialistisworking on and be able to synthesizethe concepts into the whole picture.So, it’s not an easy thing to do.The Director also has to have greatpeople skills—sitting down and deal-ing with a lot of people within theresearchcommunity,peoplewithinthepatient advocate community, andpeopleintheresearchcommunityout-side of NIH that are working withprivate funds.There are a number of facets in this job, and getting the right person Ithink is a difficult thing to do. Luckily,finding Harold Varmus was in my judgment perfect. He’s just done amarvelous job. Olds:  That’s great to hear. Many of us in the scientific research commu-nity feel the same way.I’d like to conclude things by askingyou a more general question, some-thingawayfromscience:Evenoutsideyour district, many Americans look toyou as the model of a political leaderwho doesn’t get involved in the sort of partisan politics that has made Wash-ington a difficult place. How do youthink that we can get more Americanslike you into public life? Porter:  Thank you for the compli-ment. I think we’ve become far toopartisan in our society. I came here toWashington to work in the best inter-ests of my constituents and my coun-try with other people who wanted tocome here for the same reason. I didnot come here to work in the bestinterests of my party, although myparty is important obviously. My inter-ests are my country. And I consider—and there are members who don’t—Iconsider I represent every one of the600,000 people in my district. Not justthe people who voted for me, buteverybody! That’s my job.The most important thing that Ithink we can do at the present time istogetsomeoftheexcessivemoneyoutof the system through campaign fi-nance reform, that would not allowparties to accumulate huge amountsofmoneywithnolimitsfromcorpora-tions, unions, and others. I think thatthisconcentrationofresourcesineachparty has meant that the parties domi-nate the process and make us partisansometimesattheexpenseofthejobwehave to do.Our system that the founders gaveus in America is a Constitution thatsays:  Find the middle. Find the com-mon ground.  It isn’t a parliamentarysystem. We have to work together.Otherwise, we get nothing done. Now,maybe some people don’t want us toget anything done. But I think theAmerican people expect us to worktogether. Find the common ground.Put policies in place to help our coun-try achieve its goals. Reach out andlead the world, as we are so dominantmilitarily and economically today. Butwe don’t do nearly enough to projectthe values that we deeply believe in—humanfreedom,opportunity,therightto speak your mind and worship asyou choose, —the limited role of thegovernment and the larger role of theindividual.I think we need a country that cancoalesce on these goals and reach outto the rest of the world, and really tryto bring these things home to otherpeople. And parties tend to be fairlynarrowly engaged. I like working withother people to achieve goals for thecountry. And I want to encouragepeople that campaign finance reformwould be a starting point. Every chairman of thissubcommittee since thebeginning of NIH hasresisted earmarks bydisease. We expressstrong opinions, but weleave it to science todetermine where thepossibilities are. 194 THE ANATOMICAL RECORD (NEW ANAT.)  INTERVIEW View publication statsView publication stats
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