September 2012

Don’t let this crisis go to waste

August 2012 update on the 100 Meetings challenge

Chicago Mayor (and former Democratic U.S. representative and White House chief-of-staff) Rahm Emanuel is often credited with the quote “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” And these days, if you have been paying attention to discussions about federal funding for biomedical research, you know we are on the verge of a full-blown crisis.

Congress in late July agreed (in principle) on a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through March 2013 at its current level,1 avoiding the kabuki dance of government shutdown threats so lawmakers can focus on more looming problems — specifically the “fiscal cliff” you may have heard about in the media. The fiscal cliff is a mountain of financial policies and decisions that are rapidly approaching and need congressional action. Expiring tax cuts, another debt-limit increase, and sequestration (mandated $1.1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years) are the hallmarks of the fiscal cliff. The latter may affect you, your lab, your university, your students and your future more than any proposed cuts you’ve seen before.

The White House must lay out the spending-cut details by Sept. 6, and if Congress doesn’t act each federal program on Jan. 3 will absorb a 7.8 percent cut as a result of sequestration. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense — no one is safe from the axe. Because the cuts don’t take effect until the second quarter of FY13, they must be made in nine months. That means Q1 will remain untouched, but Q2 through Q4 will see 9.8 percent cuts. NIH Director Francis Collins testified to Congress that as many as 2,100 grants may be cut next year. That is nearly $3 billion of federal investment in biomedical research vanishing soon after the new year. We clearly have a crisis brewing.

Back to Emanuel. Often left off of the Emanuel quote, said at a conference of corporate chief executives put on by the Wall Street Journal in 2008, is, “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” In our case, this opportunity is the renewed chance to talk with your member of Congress about the important role federal investment in biomedical research plays in your lab. Concerned about the very real possibility of significant cuts to the biomedical research enterprise, scientists across the country are doing what many have been reluctant to do in the past. They are talking to — and being listened to by — politicians in their home district offices about the importance of federal funding for biomedical research. And more importantly, it’s working!

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle today are hinting that sequestration shouldn’t be a necessity. Sequestration is beginning to look like it may be avoidable. Avoidable if you continue to educate your lawmakers on the important role that federal investment plays in the research enterprise. Avoidable if you are mobilized and talking about science with policymakers. Avoidable if you show members of Congress just how much of an impact your research makes on the health of their constituents and the health of the economy.

Your colleagues are delivering the message. Across the country, 43 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members conducted meetings in their districts over the summer. Find out how you can keep up the pressure this fall by emailing


Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb ( is director of public affairs at the ASBMB.

1 This must be approved by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the president in mid-September. 


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