Recorded: 18 Aug 2003
Well, of course, the NIH has had a favored position. No one is against health research, compared for example the kind of scrutiny and difficult political times that the director of the Food and Drug Administration has. He’s always being brutalized by Congress because of some problem with a drug or something isn’t getting through fast enough or, you know, something is going wrong in the system. I used to say to Frank Young, who was the Commissioner of the FDA, “Have a nice day, Frank!” He says, “The Commissioner of the FDA never has a nice day.” Well, I wouldn’t say that. I had very, very few bad days at the NIH. So first of all, it was a love-in for the director. For the most part that’s the case. We had difficult times on some issues. The AIDS issue was very difficult because especially the gay playwright community was just sure that if we wanted to we could cure AIDS. And they were all over us calling us [on] placards “Wyngaarden is a murderer” and that sort of thing. “Gallo is a murder”, or “Fauci is a murderer.” Those actually happened. So that’s rather difficult.
The animal rights issue was difficult because Congress doesn’t like that kind of problem, and Congress tends to try to satisfy their constituents. And if somebody asks Congress to do something about the NIH/Animal Rights, their first inclination is to lean on us. But that’s at a rather low level compared to many other areas of government. But in my case, at least, it didn’t take very long to figure out when I got there that the success of the NIH really depends upon budgetary growth. And that the key to budgetary growth is good relationships with Congress.
The White House rarely asks for much of an increase for the NIH. We’ve had an exception to that in the last five years when they bought into the doubling philosophy. But the budget doubled during the seven years I was there without any great fanfare to do it. Smaller figures, the budget was 3.6 billion when I arrived and 7.2 when I left so it was exactly doubled. And that was because of the AIDS epidemic and other things. And we had to come off that period of double digit inflation during the Carter years, so times were relatively better, and they could afford to increase our appropriation.
Well, that’s the job of the director. And I met with members of the Congress outside of hearings so that’s there no congressional record of that. But by that time I had been director for about four years, five years. So I had built up trust with the Congress. I had very good relationships with the Congress. I spent a lot of time explaining things to them. I spent a lot of time talking to individual congressmen out of bad legislation also, when they were trying to satisfy a constituent. But to do something it would have been damaging to us. And they were very cooperative with that. And my strongest contacts there were clearly Chairman Natcher of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee, and whoever was chairman of the Senate sub-committee. And that varied. The key members there were Lawton Childs, Lowell Wiecker, and then of the full committee, Mark Hatfield, very strong supporters of NIH. The oversight side of the house was Dingle and Waxman—Waxman of the sub-committee, Dingle of the full committee. And I spent a lot of time in their offices.
So when we began to present the human genome project, they bought into this. They trusted my judgment. I was able to bring in people to testify like Charles Cantor and Jim Watson to build a case. And they supported it and supported it well. We didn’t get as much money right off as we had hoped, but the budget grew nicely. And at the end of the fifteen years when the sequencing was essentially finished, it was five years early and under budget. So we really had very strong congressional support. We didn’t have anything like that from the administration. The secretaries that I worked under were not helpful. The White House didn’t take an interest in us at that level of detail, but on the other hand, they didn’t block it either. And President George Bush the first didn’t know anything about this. In fact, when he gave awards for national technology Medal, one of them was given to Stanley Cohen, of the Cohen-Boyer patent, and he referred to this as “human gnome research” program. So he didn’t really understand what we were doing, but he didn’t block it.
James B. Wyngaarden is a medical doctor, biochemist and medical science advisor. He served as director of the National Institutes of Health, associate director for Life Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and as director of the Human Genome Organization. Wyngaarden is currently part of the Washington Advisory Group, LLC and director of four biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. Wyngaarden is also co-author of the textbook The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease.
He researches the regulation of purine biosynthesis, the production of uric acid and he helped initiate the use of allopurinol, a drug developed as an anticancer agent and now used as a treatment for gout.
While serving as director of the National Institutes of Heath, he enlisted the help of Dr. Watson in 1988 to begin the Human Genome Project. Jim obliged and joined the NIH as the associate director for Human Genome Research, while still acting as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.