Robbing Peter to Pay Paul-How the Federal Sequester will damage our National Role as Medical Innovator

by: Nicole Aiello, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

The United States federal government is poised to impose arbitrary cuts on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, as a part of a series of global budget reductions termed “sequestration.” These cuts will stifle medical progress, kill research jobs, and fail to reduce the national deficit in a meaningful way. Sequestration will trickle down to negatively impact thousands of research facilities across the country that rely heavily on federally funded grants to address the fundamental scientific questions that drive medical breakthroughs. Although the University of Pennsylvania is a private institution, biomedical research labs here operate almost exclusively on grants awarded by the NIH, which is poised to endure a $1.6 billion reduction in funding on March 1st if Congress fails to act on the looming sequestration.

The NIH distributes more than 80% of its funding to researchers at universities and other institutions all over the country to support biomedical research. Its budget has been flat for the last ten years, and as inflation continues to climb each year the NIH can do less and less with its money. If the sequestration is allowed to occur, the NIH will lose 5.1% of its already stagnant budget, which means that significantly fewer scientific projects will be funded. These are projects that address fundamental questions about how diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes arise and how they might be targeted for treatment.  Importantly, these proposals often would not go forward without federal funding, because profit-driven private sector companies do not consider them a cost-effective investment.

The competition surrounding NIH funds is already at an all-time high and will only become more cut-throat if the sequestration is allowed to occur. Labs in academia, even though they operate within a university, rely almost entirely on grants. The loss of financial support would force some labs to shut their doors, halt critical biomedical research, and deter young scientists from pursuing careers in academia. Job prospects for science PhD holders have been grim in recent years, with a steady flow of incoming graduate students and dwindling opportunities for traditional academic positions, and the situation will become even more dire if the NIH budget is cut. As a graduate student waiting to hear back about a federal grant application, I can attest to the uncertainty surrounding the current funding situation. Because Congress has pushed the decision on sequestration to March 1st, my application exists in a state of limbo until the NIH receives its budget for 2013. There are tens of thousands of researchers in the same position all over the country, many of whom desperately need these grants to carry on with, or even begin, their research projects.

Cuts to the NIH budget will have an obvious negative impact on the scientific community, but they will also indirectly hurt the economy, especially here in Philadelphia. Federal investment in research is a large source of support for academic universities, which rank among the top employers in the Philadelphia region. For instance the University of Pennsylvania, which received $472 million in NIH awards in 2011, is the 2nd largest employer in the region, with Temple and Drexel also falling in the top 50. These universities drive the local economy, and they all directly benefit from publicly funded research. This means that the less support the NIH can give to our universities, the less support they can give to the Philadelphia community.

Unfortunately, deep cuts to the NIH budget will not only hinder medical progress but will only amount to a mere 0.04% in savings on the national budget. To put that into perspective, it’s like saving a nickel on a $100 purchase. Politicians have been throwing around the buzzwords of “shared sacrifice,” but we as a people should not have to forfeit the future of medical research in a desperate attempt to balance the budget. Indiscriminately slashing research funding is a bad short-term solution for reducing the national deficit, with even worse long-term repercussions for the economy and the health of our nation.


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