Facing a tough budget environment, the National Cancer Institute will still manage to fund almost the same number of grants this fiscal year as last year despite a 1 percent budget cut, agency director Dr. Harold Varmus said today during a visit to the Globe. In order to do that, however, the Institute will make cuts to a number of programs, including 5 percent cuts to grants that support designated cancer centers, including MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
The NCI budget for fiscal year 2011 is $5.06 billion. Varmus said that advocating for continued federal funding of research has been increasingly difficult because many key legislators who were ardent champions of funding for biomedical research are no longer in the Senate. In particular, he said, the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy, whom Varmus called a mentor and "one of my most important allies," has been felt acutely.
"Everything is on the table for the new Republicans ... We have no champions," he said. "Nobody is coming to our defense."
Asked about Senator Scott Brown, the Republican who replaced Kennedy, Varmus said he's visited Brown and "he's not unsupportive."
In an e-mail statement, Bill Schaller, a spokesman for the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, said federal funding for the cancer centers program is critical.
"We understand the budget pressures in Washington today and will work closely with the NCI," Schaller wrote. The federal investment in the cancer center program "is a prime reason that translational research is advancing faster in cancer than in many other fields."
Some of the long-term goals for the agency include reform of the clinical trial system and continued work on creating the cancer genome atlas -- a library of all the common mutations that cause different types of cancer, research that he said is already pointing the way toward new treatments.
In a memo to staff late last month, Varmus described the cuts as a difficult necessity.
"I am asking for your help and forbearance as we deal with the consequences of reduced appropriations and an increased commitment base, while also trying to maximize the number of newly awarded research grants," Varmus wrote. "At times like these, we need to make a concerted effort to use our still–considerable resources – more than $5 billion this year – in the best possible way to sustain the pace of discovery, broaden our understanding of cancer as a biological phenomenon, and turn our increased knowledge into better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancers of many types."
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