In private conversations across the country this holiday break, pediatricians are buttonholing their congressional representatives and making a heartfelt plea: Save the National Children's Study.
Hundreds of scientists have helped plan the project since 2000. The scope is enormous: Researchers are set to track 100,000 people from birth to age 21, collecting genetic material and blood samples and recording the participants' exposure to pesticides, chemicals, air pollution and more. Enrollment activities were scheduled to begin in 2007.
But President Bush's proposed budget this year called for terminating the $2.7-billion study instead of allocating the $69 million requested for fiscal 2007.
"The issue is really an issue of prioritization" of limited research funds, Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate hearing in May.
The administration's move provoked an outcry, and the House and Senate appropriations committees responded by affirming strong support. But neither committee set aside new funding for the study, leaving the project's future in limbo.
"We're preparing to respond to both directives -- to shut down the study if Congress accepts the president's budget or to continue it if more money can be found," said Dr. Peter Scheidt, the project's director.
Now a push is on to convince the new, Democratic-controlled Congress that the study needs to go forward and that new funding should be allocated.
"To pull back now, after so much work has already been done, would deliver a chilling message that our children's health simply isn't a high priority for this nation," said Dr. David Schonfeld, who is on the study's federal advisory committee. He directs the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
"Yes, this project represents a major investment, but it's an investment that promises to yield great dividends in the future."
The payoff is expected to come from understanding how children's physical and social environments -- the water they drink, the homes they live in, the video games they play -- interact with their genetic makeups and affect the onset of disease.
With chronic conditions such as asthma, autism, diabetes and obesity on the rise in youngsters and definitive scientific explanations lacking, "this work is absolutely critical," said Dr. Edward Clark, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
Salt Lake City is one of seven initial sites chosen for the project.
Even a 1% reduction in the incidence of chronic diseases could yield large benefits -- as much as $6 billion in medical savings a year, according to some estimates.