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Obama visits Bethesda for stimulus announcement

Posted on behalf of Meredith Wadman

Seven months after signing into law $10.4 billion in economic stimulus funding for the National Institutes of Health, President Barack Obama visited the Bethesda-based biomedical agency today to announce that…$5 billion of the money has been spent. obamaNIH.JPG

Coming as it did on the last day of the government’s 2009 fiscal year, this “major Recovery Act announcement,” as billed by the White House, was in fact considerable testimony to the speed with which the huge agency can shovel money out the door when the pressure is on. After all, only nine days ago, according to the calculations of Patrick Clemins at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a mere $2.67 billion of the windfall had been spent. (All of it needs to be disbursed by one year from today, when the government’s 2010 fiscal year ends.)

The president was received with great enthusiasm by a crowd of several hundred gathered in a packed auditorium at NIH’s Clinical Center, many of whom (this reporter included) had waited 2.5 hours to hear a 15-minute speech in which Obama proclaimed the stimulus funds “the single largest boost to biomedical research in history.”


“We’re announcing that we’ve awarded $5 billion — that’s with a “b” — in grants through the Recovery Act to conduct cutting-edge research all across America,” he proclaimed.

You can read the president’s remarks in their entirety here and the White House’s detailed take on the forthcoming fruits of NIH’s stimulus funding here. (Links broken at time of posting, but in case they restore later…)

Just before the speech, the president had been treated to a tour of a lab at the National Cancer Institute. It bore the sign “Urologic Oncology Branch.” Strangely, given that sign, he was shown microscopic slices of normal and cancer-ridden brains. (We will not hypothesize as to what organ one would have expected on the slides in a urology lab…) Peering into the “spiffy” scope, he said: “I want to check … that is a brain.”

In the auditorium, new NIH director Francis Collins, flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, beamingly introduced the “scientist-in-chief” and noted, without naming any names: “We are very grateful here at NIH to have a president who values science.”

Collins also dug into the numbers: As of today, he noted, the agency has awarded more than 12,000 stimulus-funded grants, and over 1,800 of those went to people who have never before received an NIH award.

Obama himself zeroed in on some favorite areas of stimulus spending: expanding the cancer genome atlas; mapping the DNA of participants in the decades-old Framingham Heart Study; and making the “largest-ever infusion of funding into autism research.”

Then, lest the “recovery” emphasis get lost in the dollar signs, the scientist-in-chief put on his economist-in-chief hat: “These investments will save jobs, they’ll create new jobs — tens of thousands of jobs.”

The buzz attending any president was unmistakeable as the line outside the auditorium lengthened. (At one point, a white-coated Tony Fauci, director of the allergy and infectious diseases institute, hustled past the patiently waiting plebians with a big, burly guy in a dark blue suit.) Alan Leshner, the former director of NIH’s drug abuse institute, waited in line “like anyone else” one of his former colleagues marveled. Leshner was overheard to say:

“I got a call yesterday saying: `Come!’

I said: `I have a meeting.’

They said: `Come!’”

He came.

Image: Meredith Wadman

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    Uncle Al said:

    I’ve worked a NIH: Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. One could not dump enough money in there to clog the drain hole. It is a political dumping ground where discoveries are buried in shallow graves.

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