Bush challenged on funding for children's study

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Congressman rebuffs president's proposed cuts.

Swings and roundabouts: funding could yet be available to study kids' health. Credit: F. CARDOSO/ZEFA/CORBIS

A controversial US study of environmental effects on children's health got a boost last week, when the congressman who holds the House purse strings for the project vowed to keep it funded despite resistance from the White House.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill on 6 March, Representative David Obey (Democrat, Wisconsin) complained that President George W. Bush's budget request for 2008 eliminated funding for the National Children's Study, as the president had also done the previous year. Authorized by Congress in 2000, the project would follow up 100,000 children from early in the womb until they reached their 21st birthday, examining the effects of everything from video games to chemical pollutants on their health and development. The study is planned for 105 sites nationwide and is expected to cost at least US$3.1 billion over 25 years.

Although the study does not specifically target the benefits of apple pie, it might be expected to enjoy a similar popularity among politicians — who doesn't want to discover the environmental triggers of autism and asthma? But the cost is raising red flags.

“If there were a cheaper, smaller, faster way to answer the questions, you would do it. But there isn't.”

“There's no opposition or scientific reluctance on our part” to doing the study, Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, told Obey at the hearing. But Zerhouni said that the agency had to make tough choices to maintain support for bench scientists and, in particular, young investigators. “Clearly, unless there were additional resources, it wouldn't have been wise to sacrifice the next generation [of scientists] for this study,” he said.

Obey, who is chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, said that he would solve that problem in 2008 by restoring money for the children's study. “We are going to put that money back next year too,” he says. “And it will not squeeze other research because we will expand the institutes' budget, just as we did this year.” In February, Obey and his Senate counterparts added an extra $620 million to the NIH's budget for 2007 (see Nature 445, 572–573; 2007), including $58 million to fund the children's study. Early this month, study administrators asked contractors to pitch proposals for managing up to 30 of the 105 sites. For 2008, they are hoping for another $111 million.

Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, said that Obey's vow to deliver funding came as “a welcome surprise”. The study sets out to answer big questions, Alexander says. “If there were a cheaper, smaller, faster way to answer them, you would do it. But there isn't. And as we get answers about environmental factors, it's going to pay for itself many, many, many times over.”

Over 25 years the study is expected to grow up to join the ranks of massive population studies, such as the Framingham Heart Study, that have yielded troves of information on disease causes and associations. If, that is, it doesn't die in its infancy.

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Wadman, M. Bush challenged on funding for children's study. Nature 446, 240–241 (2007) doi:10.1038/446240b

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