It turns out, they like us, or so they say. Biomedical researchers should take note that for the second year in a row, U.S. Senate appropriators have declared funding the National Institutes of Health a...
Congress is killing medical research. The tragedy is that they don’t want to, but they may do it anyway.
While the ridiculous posturing about the U.S. budget deficit drags on, seemingly without end, biomedical research in the U.S. is crumbling. Congress’s chronic inability to pass a budget, and especially the delays this year, are deeply damaging the core of our entire biomedical research enterprise: the National Institutes of Health.
Outside the beltway, the current battle over the budget probably looks like the usual blustering drama that Congress has been engaged in for years. Somehow they always come up with another budget, don’t they? They’ll tout it as a compromise where no one is very happy, and we move on to the next fight. Business as usual, right?
Wrong. There are very real consequences to Congress’s inaction, and they are happening right now. The “continuing resolution” that Congress passed in the fall, which allowed the government to avoid a shutdown, only runs until March. It includes a 10% across-the-board budget cut to everything. That includes most of the critical medical research in the U.S.
Every year, many NIH projects end and many others begin. (Most only last 3 or 4 years.) But not this year. Because of the budget shenanigans, NIH has been forced to cut or delay funding to almost all new projects. In other words, biomedical research that has already gone through rigorous peer review and been given top priority is on hold. And just to be clear: these are only the best projects. 80-85% of projects submitted to NIH, many of them excellent, don’t make the cut because NIH just doesn’t have enough funding for them.
While the budget is in limbo, many talented students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists who might work on these projects – some of them just beginning their careers in science – will have to find other work. Some will go to industry, and some may leave science for another field. Some of them won’t come back. This is a loss that is hard to measure.
For readers who might think I’m asking for a lot, think again. The entire NIH budget comes to about $31 billion, which supports research on hundreds of diseases. The total U.S. budget last year was 3,729 billion (3.7 trillion), so the NIH budget is less than 1% of the total. A 10% cut from the NIH budget (the so-called “sequester” plan) would save 0.08% of the federal budget. This matters not a whit in the overall budget debate – but it would be a huge blow to biomedical research, crippling some research programs for years to come.
And for those who want to look at this from an economic perspective , NIH funding is a terrific investment. A nonpartisan study in 2000 concluded:
“Publicly funded research in general generates high rates of return to the economy, averaging 25 to 40 percent a year.”
The same report provided detailed examples showing about how NIH-funded work saves billions of dollars per year in health care costs. But keep in mind that most of these benefits don’t appear for many years. The private sector simply won’t make such long-term investments.
If you are reading this, you either already benefit from medical research, or you will some day. Even if you are in perfect health, someone close to you probably uses a treatment that was supported by NIH. Virtually every major medical center in the United States depends on this funding. There are few investments with broader impact, and broader public support, than biomedical research.
Does Congress really want to kill medical research? I think the answer is very clearly no. The damage to our biomedical research enterprise is entirely unintentional: it’s collateral damage in the never-ending partisan fights that consume Washington these days. Those fights are about power and politics, not science and medicine. Everyone, even the most intransigent Congressperson, wants better treatments for cancer, heart disease, genetic diseases, infections, and the many other illnesses that afflict us.
So I’m asking the leaders of Congress (yes, I’m talking to you, Congressman John Boehner and Senator Harry Reid) to put aside the fighting for a few minutes. Bring up the NIH budget and pass it. Don’t cut it by 10% (the “sequester” plan), which would be devastating to biomedical research and would save only 0.08% of the budget. Don’t bundle it into some omnibus “grand bargain” that everyone knows is neither grand nor a bargain.
If they will simply vote on it, I predict that both houses of Congress will pass the NIH budget with overwhelming majorities, and for a brief moment, the country might even admit that Congress was doing its job. I’ll pledge right here to write a blog post titled “Congress delivers a victory to the American people.” So go ahead and do it. I dare you.
[Disclosure: Like most biomedical scientists in the U.S., I receive funding for my research from NIH. And also like most biomedical scientists, all of my lab's discoveries are freely shared with the public.]
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 18, 2012
Nobel Laureates Warn Against Going over the Fiscal Cliff (Download President's Letter)
Bethesda, Maryland – Nobel Laureates from across the country are warning Congressional leaders and President Obama about the danger the fiscal cliff poses to research and innovation.
Starting December 3, the Coalition for the Life Sciences has sent a letter a day from a Nobel Laureate in either Chemistry or Physiology and Medicine. Twenty-one Nobel Laureates are engaged in this campaign. In these letters, each Laureate emphasizes the importance of federally funded research and the dire consequences of funding cuts. Of particular concern, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will face an 8.2% across-the-board cut starting January 1, 2013, if Congress and the Administration refuse to agree on solutions to the fiscal cliff.
Coalition Board member H. Robert Horvitz, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He said, “This potentially very deep cut to the NIH as well as to all other federally-funded science would negatively impact job creation and seriously jeopardize the long-standing leadership position of the U.S. in research and innovation.”
Paul Berg, from Stanford University and the co-recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, agreed. “Past support of the NIH by the United States Congress has enabled the American scientific enterprise to rise to world leadership in the physical and life sciences. It is also why Americans have dominated as recipients of the Nobel and other illustrious Prizes.”
All the Nobel Laureates are concerned that cuts to the NIH will stifle discoveries that improve health, save lives, and drive our economy. NIH supports scientists and their critical work in every state across the nation, which means that every state would feel the negative effects of going over the fiscal cliff. Laboratories would shut down, scientists would be laid off, and local businesses that support research would close. Progress on developing promising new cures would slow, if not stop outright.
Coalition Director Lynn Marquis said the campaign arose from a shared anxiety among Coalition members about the future of the nation’s leadership in scientific output and innovation. “We felt strongly that voices from the scientific community needed to be heard and the Nation’s Laureates provide a unique voice that adds gravitas to the debate in Washington.”
The Coalition for the Life Sciences is an alliance of six non-profit professional organizations working together to foster public policies that advance basic biological research and its applications in medicine and other fields. For further information, please call Lynn Marquis, the Director of the CLS, at (301) 347-9309 or visit www.coalitionforlifesciences.org
It’s August and that means Congress is leaving Washington, DC,to spend the month in their congressional districts, a time-honored tradition called August Recess. Back in their district, members of Congress will be hard at work meeting with constituents, holding town hall meetings, and visiting schools, labs, and local businesses.
August Recess is an excellent opportunity for scientists to interact with their lawmakers.
Three things you can do over August Recess to be an effective advocate:
Here are talking points to use for your meetings. Bring your colleagues—numbers show strength!
Check your newspaper’s website or editorial/letters page for instructions on how to submit letters to the editor. Many newspapers have an automated letter-submission page on their websites, while others provide an email address for you to use. Remember to include the text of the letter in the body of your email to the newspaper. Emails with attachments go right into spam folders and are often not seen or considered.
Please let me know if you have conversations with your elected officials during the month of August. Feedback about those discussions aids me in better representing you in Washington. Finally, let me know if your letter to the editor is printed –I’ll post it on the CLS Facebook page!