The Sequester and its impact on Medical Breakthroughs

I believe that we are entering a new era of hope in medical research.  Seemingly every day we hear about new and exotic therapies that read more like science fiction than scientific reporting: immune cells are removed from our bodies and re-engineered to destroy cancer; patients are cured of AIDS by receiving bone marrow transplants; children are given vaccinations to prevent the development of cancers when they become adults; and massive genetic analyses are providing insight into the causes of disease and directions for developing the therapies of the future. 
It is therefore deeply concerning that in the midst of such promise and growth, we stand at the edge of a deep precipice of cuts to research funding.  The United State’s federal debt has ballooned into a number that is increasingly difficult to look at, and en lieu of rational fiscal policies and bipartisan compromise, Congress has instead backed itself into a corner called “sequestration.” 
Beginning in 1917, as part of a rarely discussed operational formality, federal budgets were limited by a pseudo-arbitrary debt ceiling.  Without much discussion, this limit has every year since been reached and subsequently raised.  In 2011, however, an impasse was reached wherein the national debt was suddenly decried as a threat to the nation’s future.  At the hand of overzealous small government advocates and divisive partisanship, the Budget Control Act was enacted, resulting in immediate federal budget cuts totaling $900 billion.  In conjunction, a “super committee” of congressional representatives was assembled and assigned the task of cutting $1.2 trillion from the national budget.  This exercise ended in failure.   
In the wake of this disappointment, the task of making the $1.2 trillion spending cuts has fallen to Congress.  In what has been termed the ‘nuclear option,’ failure to institute these cuts will result in sequestration, wherein draconian across-the-board cuts will be instituted automatically.  Sequestration is currently slated to go into effect March 1.
The primary medical research funding agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), risks disproportionate funding cuts if sequestration is permitted to occur.  The NIH’s budget has been neither adjusted for inflation nor increased in the last decade, an oversight unseemly in light of the increasing prevalence of preventable disease, the emergence of novel infectious disease, and the need for improved therapeutics for undertreated disorders.  To compound this flat-lined funding with budget cuts is shortsighted and reprehensible.  Furthermore, it is inefficient: the proposed 8% cut in NIH funding constitutes an inconsequential 0.08% of the federal budget.  The NIH funds our medical institutions, pays for our medical research, and supports graduate education for the future leaders in basic and clinical sciences.  To decry the failings of our educational system and urge for a larger, more competitive scientific workforce, while simultaneously gutting the NIH’s funding, is simply senseless.
Furthermore, the economic payoff from investment in scientific funding is disproportionately high.  Investment in biomedical research pays off in many ways: in many states, research facilities are a significant employer, which is invaluable in periods of high unemployment.  Development of new and improved medical therapies generates savings in the providing of medical care, a worthwhile aim when healthcare costs threaten many families’ savings.  Many pharmaceutical and private medical corporations, economic drivers and major employers themselves, received public funding in their nascent development.  The preparation of vaccines and treatments for emerging diseases is essential for guarding our national security against bioterrorism.  And, really, who wants to lose a loved one because the medication that could have treated them was halted mid-development due to lack of funding?
I urge everyone in America to stand up and demand that medical research not be subjected to these budget cuts.  To allow sequestration to proceed would be a thoughtless step backward, but it is within our power to demand of our elected officials that these cuts not be made.  Perhaps Barack Obama said it best, in 2009: “At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities.  I fundamentally disagree.  Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” 

by: Alana Sharp, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

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