The biomedical research community will lose one of its longtime champions with the upcoming retirement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). On Saturday, Harkin announced  that he would not seek a sixth term in November 2014, ending a 40-year congressional career.
Harkin, 73, is currently chair of the Senate panel that sets funding levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also chairs the committee that oversees federal policies in health, education, and labor. Harkin teamed up with his then-Republican counterpart, Arlen Specter  of Pennsylvania, to win a doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003. He and Specter also led an effort to include $10.4 billion for NIH in the 2009 stimulus package.
"Harkin obviously has been a consistent and great champion for the NIH and for medical research. So his decision not to run again is a huge loss," says Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. "For years, he and Specter essentially traded the championship back and forth. They both cared very deeply about NIH and made sure it was a priority regardless of the funding picture," adds Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative analyst for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Together with Specter, Harkin also sponsored legislation in the 2000s that would have expanded federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. In 1992, he helped create a research program for breast cancer at the Department of Defense, doubling research funding for the disease.
Harkin was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, and won a Senate seat in 1984. Not everything Harkin did pleased scientists, however. In the 1990s, Harkin pushed Congress to create an NIH office for alternative medicine, citing his own success at taking bee pollen for his allergies. The office drew controversy from scientists who claimed it was funding unscientific studies of fringe medical treatments. In 1998, Congress elevated the office to a center and NIH appointed a new director under whom the center made fewer waves. But the $128 million National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine continues to rile some NIH watchers .
Harkin's departure at the end of 2014 will leave a vacancy for the unofficial title of chief NIH booster, Zeitzer says. One candidate is Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full appropriations committee. Although that post will keep her busy, Zeitzer predicts that NIH, which lies in Mikulski's state, "will be a priority for her."