Sequester Cuts to Science Slow Biomedical Research
A scientist from the National Center for Toxicological Research analyzes microarray results to measure and assess the level of genes found in a tissue sample. FDA photo by Michael J. Ermarth.
Rebecca Riggins, an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University, was about to stick a FedEx shipping label onto a package containing about two dozen samples of human breast tumors for analysis when the phone rang. Her team was in the process of investigating why certain types of breast cancer respond well to the common hormone therapy Tamoxifen while others fare poorly. The tumor analysis was a critical part of the project.
The Feb. 25 phone call was from her colleague, the study's principal investigator. Program officials at the National Institutes of Health had just told him to expect at least a 50 percent reduction in funding to their research. It was part of the sequestration cuts to the federal budget, which include 5.1 percent cuts across the board to non-defense agencies.
She had no choice but to put the mailing on hold and move the samples to the freezer, where they remain today.
Riggins' team can no longer afford to continue some of their more expensive experiments, like the tumor analyses. And they're scaling back their smaller experiments involving breast cancer cells grown in the lab and mouse model studies.
"To do the most simple lab experiment, all of that is built in the grant," Riggins said. "I'm keeping a nervous eye on the stocks on the shelf. It makes it very difficult."
Deep federal budget cuts, which kicked in on March 1 after Congress failed to reach a budget compromise, are already forcing scientists to scale back their research and look elsewhere for funding. Fewer dollars will mean fewer research projects, layoffs among scientists and cuts to equipment, all of which could influence scientific and medical advances and ultimately affect patient care.
The National Institutes of Health, the country's largest supporter of basic research, is facing $1.6 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year. While most research grants from the NIH are awarded for a four or five-year duration, the federal budget operates on a fiscal-year time frame. Which means effects are immediate and likely to impact research that's already underway, according to Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California at San Francisco. UCSF receives more money from the National Institutes of Health than any other research institution. The hit to its $500 million annual research budget will be about $28 million.
"As funding gets cut back...it can affect both the personnel that are brought in and technology or supplies for an experiment," Yamamoto said. "In the best case, things are slowed. In the worst case, projects are cut entirely."
Some see the sequester as a necessary means of exercising spending restraint. Cato's Daniel Mitchell, for example, argues in this essay that "a sequester merely means that spending climbs by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion." And an essay by T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd, members of the Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders Project point to projects funded by the NIH that they cite as non-vital. One studied whether male fruit flies were more attracted to older or younger female fruit flies. Another looked at whether golfers perform better when using their imagination.
On April 8, as an outgrowth of the American Association for Cancer Research's annual meeting, scientists, patients and caregivers will mobilize at a rally near the Washington, D.C., convention center to protest cuts to medical research. NIH director Francis Collins and Rockefeller University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne will speak alongside survivors of breast cancer, diabetes and cardiac arrest. Organizers are hoping more than 20,000 will attend.
Roberta DeBiasi, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's National Medical Center, plans to attend the rally.
"I think the important thing is to make it visible that there really is a threat to research," DeBiasi said.
She worries that rare diseases will become more overlooked as a result of the cuts and fears the impact on basic science research. She cites the outbreak of the SARS virus as an example of the importance of basic science research. Had scientists not been studying a related corona virus similar to the one that caused SARS, they would have lacked critical information that helped them understand the virus and contain its spread.
One big question as government funding slows is whether private foundations and companies will step in to fill the void.
Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a nonprofit group, said organizations like hers are already feeling pressure to raise more money for research. Her group raised $5 million for research this year (mostly from individual private donors and events), up from $3.8 million the year before.
"Certainly it's a call to action for organizations like ours to fill the gap, and to be smart strategically," she said.
Another more immediate result: widespread discouragement among young scientists. Riggins said the vast majority of students working on her floor likely won't pursue academic biomedical research as a career, unwilling to enter a field with little money and grim job prospects.
"And these people have good ideas," she said. "They're smart, they're creative, and we're going to lose that."
It's becoming harder and harder for young scientists to find tenure-track positions, Yamamoto added. Training programs, too, are accepting less students and reducing class size.
"Many of the people who enter postdoctoral training have aspirations to become professors and carry out independent research," he said. "But the sequester has led to great concern among the trainees....To see these training programs have to cut back is really tragic," Yamamoto said.
Photo credit: Photo by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.