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President cuts nutrition lab from federal budget

The 2009 federal budget set to be released next week by President Bush does not include funding for the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told the Herald on Friday afternoon.

The 2009 federal budget set to be released next week by President Bush does not include funding for the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told the Herald on Friday afternoon.

The president's budget calls for the nutrition center to be closed and for many of its functions to be transferred to two other USDA Agricultural Research Services offices, one in Beltsville, Md., and the other in Davis, Calif., Dorgan said.

The budget, which will be released Monday, is not publicly available yet, but Dorgan said he'd confirmed the closing with someone inside the Bush administration.

Newly installed Secretary of Agriculture and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer would not comment on Bush's proposed budget, nor would anyone else in the USDA, until the president releases it Monday night, said Keith Williams, a Schafer spokesman.

Williams emphasized that Congress ultimately sets the budget for the USDA, including the Human Nutrition Center.

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The human nutrition center, or "nut lab," has 94 employees, including 55 federal employees and 39 state employees contracted through UND, whose salaries are paid with federal money through the center, said Director Gerald Combs.

"We also have eight open positions," he said, and he expects news of the center not being in the president's budget recommendations will make it harder to fill them, as the USDA likely will tell the center to freeze hiring during the budgeting process.

Dorgan serves on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, which will write the portion of the federal budget that currently funds the center, he said.

"I intend to do everything I can to make certain we continue to fund the center," he said. "If I thought it wasn't doing the job, I'd be happy to support the president's recommendation. But I think it does do its job."

Dorgan said transferring the lab's responsibilities to higher cost, urban areas could actually increase the burden on taxpayers.

"Moving those functions to larger cities hardly seems like a bargain for taxpayers," he said.

The center's budget last year was $9.3 million, which likely would have an impact of about $14 million on the Grand Forks economy, he said.

Combs said he was pretty confident that North Dakota's congressional delegation would succeed in getting funding for the center into the actual federal budget to be set by Congress later this year.

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Although Schafer may have limited ability to change anything in the president's budget recommendations, it can't hurt that he's familiar with the center, Combs said.

"He certainly would have an understanding of our local circumstances that few other people would have," he said.

The Grand Forks lab's operational funding has steadily decreased over the past three years, said center Director Gerald Combs, as the budget appropriation has remained flat but salaries have increased through cost of living adjustments. But this is the first time in his six years at the center that there has been an attempt to shut it down entirely, he said.

In 1990, funding for the center was cut drastically, and a dozen or more employees were laid off and had to be rehired. After the Flood of 1997, funding for the Center also was cut and partially restored.

Employees had not been told of the reports of the president's budget because it was so speculative, and Combs himself only learned of it Friday, he said.

Dorgan said he plans to work with other members of North Dakota's congressional delegation to help retain the lab's funding, but said he had only learned of the planned cut this afternoon and had not had a chance yet to talk with Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., or Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

Neither Conrad's nor Pomeroy's offices could confirm Friday afternoon that they had learned of the proposed cut. A representative in Pomeroy's office said that if the lab's funding is cut, altering that would be a top concern for the delegation.

Dorgan said he would discuss the cut with Schafer, who was confirmed Monday, but Dorgan said he did not expect Schafer to aid in the fight to retain the lab's funding.

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"Cabinet secretaries work for the president," he said, "and they're bound and required to support the president's budget recommendations."

The center was famous for years for its study of trace elements in human diets. Those studies often used paid volunteers who would sometimes live in the center and eat very restricted diets. Lab workers would collect every bit of byproduct from their bodies to provide research data.

Those types of studies no longer are done, and for the past few years, the focus - 40 percent of the center's work - has been on researching obesity and concurrent health problems, Combs said. This region has twice the national rate of obesity, and American Indian communities have even greater problems, Combs said, making the center's work very locally relevant.

"We are the only center the USDA has in a rural area," Combs said. "I would hope any thoughtful person would understand that this should be a national priority, preventing obesity, and that it's a bigger problem in rural areas like North Dakota than in urban areas."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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