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‘2013: A bad year to have a good idea’
WASHINGTON, D.C.—American biomedical researchers are being forced to make difficult decisions as they grapple with the rippling effects of sequestration, or $85 billion in across-the-board cuts to government spending—with their primary benefactor, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), bracing for the expected loss of 5.1 percent of its already stretched research funding budget.
"2013 is a bad year to have a good idea," Dr. Laura Niedernhofer, associate professor of the Department of Metabolism & Aging at Scripps Florida, told the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in its recent report, "Sequestration Cuts Biomedical and Biological Research."
Concerns over government funding cuts have loomed over the American medical research community for more than a year. With the United States' debt-ceiling crisis keeping lawmakers up at night, Congress in August 2011 passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which provided for a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to produce legislation by late November that would decrease the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. When the so-called "super committee" failed to act, a portion of the BCA went into affect that directed automatic sequestrations split evenly between defense and domestic spending beginning Jan. 2. The debate's resolution, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA), then reduced some of the planned cuts and delayed budget sequestrations for two months.
Failing to reach a budget compromise, the research community finally learned its fate on March 1, when sequestration went into effect: $85 billion will be slashed from government departments, agencies and programs this year. In particular, the NIH says it will lose $1.6 billion of its $30-billion budget in fiscal-year 2013.
The NIH's budget for biomedical research has already been stretched thin for about the past decade, notes the agency's director, Dr. Francis Collins.
"After boom times, since 2003, the NIH budget has already lost about 20 percent of its purchasing power by flat budgets that have been eroded by inflation," he says.
Consequently, the chances of grant-seekers being awarded funds from the NIH decreased from about 1 in 3—a probability that existed for nearly half a century—to about 1 in 6, and the sequestration will drop that likelihood even further, says Collins.
According to Collins, each of the NIH's 27 institutes are required to take the same cuts, and "we have no opportunity to do any shifting around among institutes," he says, but adds, "each of the institute's directors has the ability to spread the pain between grants and contracts in the Intramural Program, but there aren't going to be any easy answers there."
No disease area will be spared the cuts, and Collins lamented that progress will be significantly slowed in fast-growing areas of unmet medical need such as cancer, Alzheimer 's disease and influenza.
"We will try to prioritize those things that seem critical for public health, but there is no way to eliminate consequences for all of these projects," he says.
Thanks to the ARTA, the cuts are slightly less painful than the 11.1 percent, or $2.8 billion, in cuts to the NIH's extramural budget that FASEB estimated in what it called a "conservative" analysis released in May 2012, but the effects of the cuts are still going to be "devastating" for researchers in every state, notes the organization's president, Dr. Joseph C. LaManna.
"More than 80 percent of NIH funding is distributed to researchers in nearly every Congressional district in the United States," he notes.
"What the NIH has told us is that all research areas are going to be affected," adds LaManna's colleague, Jennifer Zeitzer, FASEB's director of legislative affairs. "It has to cut all of its budget, and it can't exempt any research areas. It's getting harder and harder to get a grant from the NIH. People are really carefully considering the cuts when they submit grants. All grants submitted last year may be in limbo and not be funded. We're seeing a lot of anxiety in the community."
With the NIH supporting about 430,000 jobs, about 20,000 "high-paying, high-quality" jobs will be lost, says Collins. Of particular concern to the NIH is the impact the cuts may have on job opportunities for young, up-and-coming scientists.
"I worry deeply that we are putting an entire generation of scientists at risk by the very significant difficulty they see in obtaining support," says Collins. "I think unless something turns the corner pretty soon, a number of our most talented young scientists will basically decide to do something else."
Dr. Curt Civin, associate dean of Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, has a successful research career spanning several decades—backed by millions of dollars in NIH funding—but says he worries that "we are turning off our future and turning off the pipeline of new ideas."
"If you have competition to get a grant, and you have a very experienced investigator with a long track record of success, and a young whipper-snapper who seems like he has a great idea, but not as much experience behind him, who are you going to fund?" Civin asks. "In addition, everyone who has a grant is going to have cuts. How do we deal with those cuts? In any grant, the biggest category of budget items is people. It's hard to cut people fast, but if you have a post-doctorate or graduate student finishing up or a technician who has another job offer, you don't replace them. There are the kinds of economies we'll be making, and science just isn't good on a budget."
The result will be the loss of thousands of talented young scientists to other countries where government research funding is more plentiful and prioritized, says Civin.
"We will start to eat dust in that direction," he says. "Europe and China are expected to double any biomedical research investments they are making. We have excelled and led the way for so many good discoveries, and done so many good things for society, but this will not be kept on our shores."
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., tells ddn she is already losing colleagues to South Korea, Singapore and India "because those places are increasing their investment in research." With her lab, which focuses on autoimmune disease research, heavily reliant on NIH funding, "I don't know that we'll exist anymore," she admits.
"Maintaining my lab completely depends on maintaining research funding. Rather than doing the very best, informative experiments, we are doing what we can afford," she says.
Mowen asserts, "all cuts are not created equal. That is where the failing really is in the sequestration. 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.
"Biomedical research contributes to improving the health of the American people, as well as the economy," Obama said in a statement. "Tomorrow's advances in healthcare depend on today's investments in basic research."
For now, the sequestration cuts remain, and ultimately, they may have a significant impact on human health, says Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Association, or BIO.
"There are many sick people out there hoping for new treatments and cures. We fear that sequestration may impact the FDA's ability to review and approve these products in the timeliest of fashions, thus impacting patients' ability to access these treatments in a timely manner. It is our hope that Congress and the president will work together to find a way to end the sequestration."
A rallying point for cancer research
AACR demonstration calls on Congress to spare NIH from sequestration cuts
By Jim Cirigliano
WASHINGTON, D.C.—On April 8, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) shut down its Annual Meeting 2013 to join nearly 200 partnering organizations in a rally to support government funding of medical research funding.
Officially dubbed the Rally for Medical Research, organized by the AACR, the rally's specific call to action was to spur Congress to spare the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) from the mandatory budget cuts brought about by the sequestration. The NIH lost $1.6 billion in federal funding for medical research when sequestration cuts went into effect on March 1.
Participants demonstrated on the Carnegie Library grounds at Mt. Vernon Square in downtown Washington. AACR meeting attendees were encouraged to participate; those who did were joined by cancer patients, physicians and advocates from around the country looking to voice their support of sustained investment in the NIH's medical research.
Speakers featured at the rally included Rockefeller University President Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, AACR CEO Dr. Margaret Foti, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and former Congressman John Porter (R- Ill.), along with several survivors and patient advocates. ABC News political analyst and National Public Radio (NPR) senior news analyst Cokie Roberts served as the rally's emcee.
"Listening to the patient advocates was really touching," says Tabitha Bauman, a spokesperson for Rockland Immunochemicals. "They had amazing stories, which were probably the highlight of the whole event."