November 2012

Mayday! Mayday!

One of the remarkable aspects of the biomedical community is its resilience in response to funding obstacles put in place by policymakers in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, a new fiscal challenge is looming over those who conduct biomedical research: budget cuts the likes of which we have never before experienced. In a field that prides itself on rocking the boat and challenging preconceived ideas of how nature works, these cuts may rock the biomedical research boat too much for the system ever to recover fully.

Last summer, in the midst of an impending fiscal crisis that led to the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating, Congress passed legislation intended to slow the rise in federal spending and decrease the national debt. In that legislation, Congress and President Obama agreed to a set of mandatory spending cuts, termed sequestration, amounting to $1 trillion over 10 years. Those cuts would be divided evenly between defense and nondefense spending, the account from which the National Institutes of Health receives its $30.6 billion annual budget. The NIH estimates it will lose $2.5 billion starting Jan. 2, which would eliminate 2,300 new biomedical research grants. That’s nearly one-fourth of all new grants.

“It’s like a knife hanging over our heads,” Bill Chin, executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School, told the Boston Globe last month. “Funding will be reduced for current projects that are working on cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease, all of which have had remarkable advances recently. Ninety percent of our research budget comes from government sources, and the NIH is by far the major source.”

In all, sequestration threatens to cut $200 million to $300 million in federal funding for research in 2013 in the Boston area alone. Biomedical research in that region has helped attract a cluster of pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology startups eager to license intellectual property from lab discoveries. Thus, the effects of these staggering cuts to basic biomedical research will have significant repercussions in small biomedical businesses. “Cutting the NIH budget in a weak economy is like jettisoning an engine on an airplane that’s losing altitude,” Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Globe.

John Reed, chief executive at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in California, said the possible cuts, in the neighborhood of $290 million, in San Diego will be similar to those in Boston. “That size cut is approaching 10 percent of the entire San Diego life-sciences workforce,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. The number of jobs lost could exceed 4,500 in the San Diego area, with 3,100 of those belonging to scientists and 1,400 to those who support the research industry.

But these are just two regions that are likely to experience devastating consequences should these cuts come to pass. United for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of research institutions, patient advocacy groups and private industry, has estimated that the biomedical research enterprise as a whole stands to lose 33,000 scientists and lab workers. With these losses to the workforce, it is likely that the current collaborations that exist between labs will become even more competitive and young researchers will choose to abandon biomedical research in search of more lucrative, stable employment.

Mary Hendrix, president and scientific director of Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Research Center, wrote in a March op-ed in the Chicago Tribune: “Historically, research has fueled job growth and new American industries like biotech, while keeping our nation globally competitive.” Hendrix went on to say, “At a time when nations like China and India are rapidly increasing investments in research, America cannot afford to fall behind and lose the jobs and industries that come with medical innovation — not to mention losing an entire generation to lost training opportunities.”

In testimony before Congress, NIH Director Francis Collins crystallized the importance of biomedical research to the nation’s economy and society. “Biomedical research funded by NIH has prevented immeasurable human suffering and has yielded economic benefits as well, thanks to U.S. citizens living longer, healthier and more productive lives.” He continued, “NIH is the leading supporter of basic biomedical research in the world. Put plainly, if we don’t fund basic research, most of this work would not get done, and it would be only a matter of time before this wellspring of new understanding and new therapies would dry up.” Sequestration, it seems, has the potential to more than just rock the biomedical research boat: It has the potential to sink it.

As dramatic as the cuts could be, it is still possible they will be avoided. Congress, upon returning from an election-season hiatus, has time this month and in December to pass legislation to ease the effects of sequestration, if not eliminate the threat altogether. But the scientific community must have its message heard — and heard loudly — that these cuts are irresponsible and the damage resulting from them irreparable. We need to tell Congress that it can’t fix decades of negligent spending by crippling biomedical research. In December, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee will be calling on you all to have your voices heard in a coordinated fashion, making it impossible for the concerns of the scientific community to be ignored by our nation’s leaders and defending the future of America place as a global leader in innovation and research.

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

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