Save the NIH from the Sequester!
On March 1st, sequestration will eliminate $1.6 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. The deadline is fast approaching, and Congress has failed to put forth any alternative plans for avoiding the drastic cuts sequestration would entail. As a biomedical graduate student, whose research and training are supported by the federally funded NIH, these cuts deeply concern me. Although many argue that spending cuts are necessary in an era when the country has amassed trillions of dollars in debt, austerity does not translate well to medical research nor to the well being of the general public. The amount cut from the NIH would save the federal government 0.042% of the national budget, but would have devastating effects on the economy, medical research, and the training of a new generation of scientists and medical doctors. Is the paltry amount of money saved really worth all that will be lost?
It is impossible to estimate how a loss of $1.6 billion would affect our lifespan, health, or quality of living. This money funds research that develops treatments for cancer, diabetes, and countless other diseases. Since 1962, NIH-funded research has played a role in the development of 153 FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, and new indications for currently approved medication. Furthermore, without the NIH, basic scientific discoveries that fuel new treatments will not happen. The basic research funded by the NIH is essential to designing the best drug treatments and therapies, but because they are long-term investments and do not guarantee a high profit margin, private industry is wary of investing its time and money in these projects. Thus, sequestration would both harm the NIH’s ability to promote new areas of discovery-based research and indirectly impact the NIH-dependent pharmaceutical industry.
Under sequestration, the NIH is slated to lose 5.1% of its annual $31 billion budget, a sum of $1.6 billion. This loss would have a devastating impact on the nation’s economy, as the NIH is a major source of employment and expenditures, and essentially acts as the base for the U.S. medical innovation sector. In 2011, the NIH contributed $61 billion to the U.S. economy, and supported over 432,000 jobs. In spite of the fact that government funding for health research and development has been stagnant over the past decade, the NIH has proven that the returns it generates are well worth the investment.
If the sequester takes effect, a substantial number of important research projects will be rejected simply due to lack of funding. Only the top 18% of research projects in the country acquire coveted NIH funds, which means that many worthwhile projects are already being cast aside. Under sequestration, the grant success rate would drop to 14%, at least 20,000 jobs would be lost, and 3 billion fewer dollars would be funneled into the economy. To put the $1.6 billion figure into even sharper perspective, this is double the amount currently invested in training grants and fellowships. Consequentially, many of our most talented young scientists will take their skills to other fields, or leave the country altogether, creating a lost generation of trained biomedical researchers and doctors.
Congress seems inclined to let the sequester pass, as a means to score political points for each party. Congress needs to be reminded that biomedical research is largely a non-partisan issue, and historically has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Both parties understand how biomedical research can reduce the cost of healthcare, and representatives from each political party have indicated that the NIH plays a crucial role in such endeavors. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has said, “Doing what we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs . . . should be a priority. We can and must do better.” If Congress truly believes that federally funded advances in medical research are worthwhile, they should act quickly to ensure that the NIH is spared the results of sequestration.
Spending cuts for federally funded medical research affect everyone to some extent, as most individuals have experience with a family member that has a chronic disease or illness. The most recent statistics collected by Research!America found that nearly 50% of Americans think the government isn’t investing enough resources in medical research, and 54% would be willing to pay slightly more in taxes provided their money went directly to medical research. I urge you to take this same passion and contact your congressmen about sequestration. The future of the NIH, the healthcare driven economy, and medical research in the U.S. depends on your support.
By Ellen Elliot, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student