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The many colors of sequestration
Sequestration, I guess, is like a box of chocolates. Well, sort of. In this case, unfortunately, you know exactly what you're not going to get.
In researching our cover story on the sequestration—or, put in very stark, black-and-white terms, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts to federal government spending—and how it is expected to affect biomedical research in every state, I was treated to a slew of colorful comparisons by researchers, trade groups and government leaders, as they grapple to explain the hit they will take when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is forced to cut its budget by 5.1 percent, or $1.6 billion, this fiscal year.
Scientists have always had a hard time explaining what they do to the general public, the media, patients waiting for life-changing treatments and even lawmakers. Now, more than ever, with the sequestration wolf at the door, they are doing whatever they can to effectively translate how sequestration cuts will affect their research—and ultimately, the lives of the patients who stand to benefit from them.
"It's like baking a cake when you are only given just enough money to buy flour and sugar, but no eggs," one researcher tells me. Or maybe, she adds a beat later, "we're like aircraft carriers—huge beasts that can't change direction that quickly."
"It's like a faucet," says another researcher. "We're turning off the pipeline of new ideas."
And the director of the NIH himself, Francis Collins, compares the potential impact of sequestration cuts to NIH funding to a haircut: "We wouldn't do it in a completely blind fashion like a haircut, but everybody's hair would get cut—pretty significantly. There would be a lot of people with very short hair," he says.
As noted in the story, "'2013: A bad year to have a good idea,'" (as Dr. Laura Niedernhofer, associate professor of the Department of Metabolism & Aging at Scripps Florida, so colorfully puts it), the NIH's wallet has already been a bit light in the last decade. With only $30 billion to ration out to thousands of researchers across the country, the NIH has lost about 20 percent of its purchasing power since 2003, thanks to flat budgets that have been eroded by inflation, says Collins.
Always generous with his response to my interview requests, Dr. Curt Civin, associate dean of Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, shares that his very decorated research career wouldn't have been possible without NIH funding. His breakthrough discovery of the CD34 lympho-hematopoietic stem cell antigen and monoclonal antibody has facilitated basic research in stem cell biology and leukemia, leading to improved stem cell transplantation for thousands of patients. He doesn't even know the total amount of NIH funding that enabled such discoveries of his—"it's millions and millions of dollars," he offers—but Civin tells me that he isn't as much concerned with the impact the NIH cuts will have on veteran researchers like himself. He's more concerned about "the young whipper-snappers."
"It's like the old story about two people trying to cross a river over a bunch of stones. One person leaps between the stones. The other one fills in the stones so it's easier for everyone to walk across. If you don't have a young investigator, you can't leap as far," he says. "We're turning off our future."
Like the faucet Civin describes above.
And what's more, when faced with a lack of financial support for their research, young scientists will likely be enticed by opportunities in other countries that are increasingly investing in biomedical research, Civin predicts.
This trend, which is often referred to as "the brain drain," is also affecting the laboratory of Dr. Kerri A. Mowen, assistant professor in the Departments of Chemical Physiology & Immunology and Microbial Sciences at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Mowen, who offers the cake-baking analogy above, tells me she is already losing colleagues to South Korea, Singapore and India.
"Those places are increasing their investments in research. And thus, we're cutting diversity out of our research community, which I think is important," Mowen says.
"I'm very cynical about all of this," Mowen confesses, and she's clearly been giving a lot of thought to the sequestration, as she is full of colorful analogies about the situation: "It's like the story of Darwin's finches. The beaks of the finches on one island are all one size because they adapted over the years in order to get certain types of fruit. I fear that this is what will happen here; that we will end up with a lot finches with the same type of beak," she says.
Obviously, the NIH isn't the only government entity being asked to tighten its belt. Some of you who may be traveling this conference season have likely had your flights delayed, as airports are putting fewer aircraft controllers on duty. More than half of the nation's 2.1 million government workers may be required to take furloughs if agencies are forced to trim budgets. About 70,000 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs may be cut from them, and 14,000 teachers could lose their jobs. And if you're planning a family summer vacay to one of our national parks, you're likely to encounter shorter visitor hours, fewer rangers, locked restrooms and overflowing trash cans.
But cutting funding for the NIH? It's not the same thing, argue Civin and Mowen.
"This funding is important to our health and our jobs, and it makes no sense to include them in these across-the-board cuts," says Civin.
"All cuts are not created equal," Mowen agrees. "That is where the failing really is in the sequestration. From where I sit, I haven't seen many signs of hope that the powers that be are making decisions based on evidence. If I were the owner of a small business, I wouldn't make decisions that cause my business to shut down. We have to recognize which parts of the budget are investments, and what will lead to economic growth. That is what we really need to get out of this entire situation."
At press time, President Barack Obama released a 2014 budget proposal that seeks to cancel sequestration and replace it with an additional $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction through new revenue, $400 billion in savings and $200 billion in discretionary cuts split evenly between defense and nondefense programs in 2017. That budget provides $31 billion for the NIH, a slight increase over the pre-sequestration amount provided for the agency.
"Some of the projections for next year are that we could get back to the budget that we had last year—and we should appreciate that as a victory," Civin commiserates.
It's clear that the sequestration cuts will affect how many research projects are funded, the ability to hire qualified and talented staff in laboratories in every state and even the amount of equipment and tools that labs are able to purchase. But ultimately, the pinch that biomedical researchers are feeling now will be felt later by the patients who would have benefitted from important advances in diseases that are becoming epidemics in our country, like diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and even cancer. Is it really fair to ignore this stark reality and put medical research in the same category as killing weeds in a public park?
Perhaps Mowen puts it best: "I feel that as scientists, we haven't done a very good job at communicating what we do. The bottom line is, when you go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, you have the NIH—and the funding it gave to the research that went into creating that drug 15 to 20 years ago—to thank for it," she says.