The National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with more well-known agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), is one of the eleven agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Located on a 300-acre campus in Bethesda, Maryland, the NIH is the “nation’s medical research agency”; it claims to make “important discoveries that improve health and save lives.”
The roots of the NIH go back to 1887, when a one-room Laboratory of Hygiene was created within the Marine Hospital Service (MHS). It is now “one of the world’s foremost medical research centers,” “the Federal focal point for health research,” and “the steward of medical and behavioral research for the Nation.” Its mission is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.” The NIH is the largest biomedical research agency in the world. It is composed of 27 separate institutes and centers that conduct and coordinate research across different disciplines of biomedical science. That includes government agencies that some Americans may be familiar with, such as the National Cancer Institute, as well as little-known entities, such as the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The NIH employs about 19,000 people and has a budget of more than $30 billion a year. Approximately 83 percent of the agency’s budget “goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and throughout the world.”
So what is a government agency doing in the news — including a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered — that the majority of Americans outside the medical field have probably never heard?
The NIH has decided to retire its last 50 research chimpanzees. The wheels of this decision were set in motion back in 2010. It was then that the NIH commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to determine the continued scientific need for chimps in NIH-funded research. The IOM concluded in 2011 that “most current use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is unnecessary and that the use of chimpanzees in research that may still be needed should be guided by a set of principles and criteria.” The NIH adopted the IOM’s recommendations and in 2013 announced plans “to retain but not breed up to 50 chimpanzees for future biomedical research.” Said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, “Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary.” But now even the 50 chimps are no longer needed for research.
The chimps will be going into retirement at Chimp Haven, a sanctuary outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park in Keithville, Louisiana. According to the facility’s president and CEO, Cathy Willis Spraetz, “We have had over 300 chimpanzees come through Chimp Haven’s doors, and we have successfully introduced chimpanzees to each other well over 200 times. So we’ve had great success.” Chimp Haven serves as “The National Chimpanzee Sanctuary.” The Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance Protection Act or CHIMP Act was signed into law in 2000, establishing the Federal Sanctuary System. Chimp Haven was awarded a federal contract to create “a sanctuary where its residents could live in large social groups in spacious, outdoor habitats and where they could live out their lives in a setting that afforded them greater freedoms and self-determination.” The “Chimp Haven is Home Act,” enacted in 2007, closed a loophole in the CHIMP Act, thus “prohibiting chimpanzees retired from biomedical research to be returned to laboratories.”
Animal-rights activists, most of whom are liberals, will certainly applaud the NIH’s decision. Most conservatives are probably indifferent to the plight of the chimps. However, they regularly get upset with some of the grants awarded by the NIH. In 2013, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was awarded a $1.5 million grant to study biological and social factors why “three-quarters” of lesbians are obese and why gay males are not, calling it an issue of “high public-health significance.” In 2014, there was a $237,750 grant to George Washington University “to study whether the use of telemedicine can help overcome barriers to care for transgender women of color” In 2015, there was a $42,676 grant to the University of Pennsylvania “to teach yoga to drug-abusing convicts with HIV to help them once they are released from prison.”
Liberals and conservatives both agree on one significant thing about the NIH: It is deserving of government funding as long as it doesn’t do things they don’t like. The necessity, legitimacy, and constitutionality of the NIH, its 27 institutes and centers, and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, as institutions of the federal government are things they have never even considered.
In spite of all the Republican rhetoric about free markets and limited government, the NIH enjoys wide bipartisan support. The budget of the NIH has grown from $17.8 billion in fiscal year 2000 to the more than $30 billion that it is today. The biggest increase occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush, when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress for more than four years. Even the most recent appropriation for the NIH, which was included in Division F, Title III and Division G, Titles II, V, and VI of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (PL 113-235, H.R.83), was passed with the votes of 24 Republicans in the Senate and 162 in the House.
Support for the necessity of the NIH is based on the myth that medical discoveries and breakthroughs would not occur unless medical research is centralized, coordinated, and funded by the federal government. And of course, the NIH reinforces that myth every chance it gets. For example, the description on the website of the NIH’s annual Almanac says, “Thanks in large part to NIH-funded medical research, Americans today continue to enjoy longer and healthier lives.” That is the same mentality expressed by Americans who live in cities where the local government collects the garbage who wonder how else the garbage would be collected if the government didn’t do it. It is also akin to thinking that the poor would starve without food stamps.
Since the only possible justification for government action is in prosecuting and exacting restitution from those persons who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or violate the property rights of others, all government functions beyond judicial and policing functions are illegitimate — including conducting and funding biomedical research. Once the premise is accepted that the government should act as the coordinator of biomedical research, no reasonable argument can be made against the government’s coordinating any activity.
But even if one thinks that the NIH is both necessary and a legitimate function of government, it still fails the constitutional test. Nowhere in its list of enumerated powers delegated to the federal government does the Constitution grant the government the authority to conduct biomedical research or give taxpayer funds in the form of grants to students and scientists in universities to do the same. Democrats and Republicans in Congress — both of whom swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” — should refuse to fund the NIH on principle. But, of course, they base all of their decisions on politics and policy, not principle.
The NIH’s chimpanzees aren’t the only ones who should be retired. It is time to retire not only the NIH and its 27 institutes and centers, not only the other 10 agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services, but the entire department and all of its federal employees as well.