The many colors of sequestration

In researching our cover story on the sequestration -- or, put in very stark, black-and-white terms, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts to federal government spending -- and how it is expected to affect biomedical research in every state, I was treated to a slew of colorful comparisons by researchers, trade groups and government leaders, as they grapple to explain the hit they will take when the NIH is forced to cut its budget by 5.1 percent, or $1.6 billion, this fiscal year.

May6th,2013
Amy Swinderman
Sequestration, I guess, is like a box of chocolates. Well,sort of. In this case, unfortunately, you know exactly what you're not going toget.
 
In researching our cover story on the sequestration—or, putin very stark, black-and-white terms, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts tofederal government spending—and how it is expected to affect biomedicalresearch in every state, I was treated to a slew of colorful comparisons byresearchers, trade groups and government leaders, as they grapple to explainthe hit they will take when the U.S. National Institutes of Health(NIH) is forced to cut its budget by 5.1 percent,or $1.6 billion, this fiscal year.
 
Scientists have always had a hard time explaining what theydo to the general public, the media, patients waiting for life-changingtreatments and even lawmakers. Now, more than ever, with the sequestration wolfat the door, they are doing whatever they can to effectively translate howsequestration cuts will affect their research—and ultimately, the lives of thepatients who stand to benefit from them.
 
"It's like baking a cake when you are only given just enoughmoney to buy flour and sugar, but no eggs," one researcher tells me. Or maybe,she adds a beat later, "we're like aircraft carriers—huge beasts that can'tchange direction that quickly."
 
"It's like a faucet," says another researcher. "We'returning off the pipeline of new ideas."
And the director of the NIH himself, Francis Collins, compares the potential impact of sequestrationcuts to NIH funding to a haircut: "We wouldn't do it in a completely blindfashion like a haircut, but everybody's hair would get cut—prettysignificantly. There would be a lot of people with very short hair," he says.
 
As noted in the story, "'2013: A bad year to have a goodidea,'" (as Dr. Laura Niedernhofer, associate professor of the Department ofMetabolism & Aging at Scripps Florida, so colorfully puts it), the NIH'swallet has already been a bit light in the last decade. With only $30 billionto ration out to thousands of researchers across the country, the NIH has lostabout 20 percent of its purchasing power since 2003, thanks to flat budgetsthat have been eroded by inflation, says Collins.
 
Always generous with his response to my interview requests,Dr. Curt Civin, associate dean of Research at the University of Maryland Schoolof Medicine and director of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine,shares that his very decorated research career wouldn't have been possiblewithout NIH funding. His breakthrough discovery of the CD34lympho-hematopoietic stem cell antigen and monoclonal antibody has facilitatedbasic research in stem cell biology and leukemia, leading to improved stem celltransplantation for thousands of patients. He doesn't even know the totalamount of NIH funding that enabled such discoveries of his—"it's millions andmillions of dollars," he offers—but Civin tells me that he isn't as muchconcerned with the impact the NIH cuts will have on veteran researchers likehimself. He's more concerned about "the young whipper-snappers."
 
"It's like the old story about two people trying to cross ariver over a bunch of stones. One person leaps between the stones. The otherone fills in the stones so it's easier for everyone to walk across. If youdon't have a young investigator, you can't leap as far," he says. "We'returning off our future."
 
Like the faucet Civin describes above.


And what's more, when faced with a lack of financial supportfor their research, young scientists will likely be enticed by opportunities inother countries that are increasingly investing in biomedical research, Civinpredicts.
 
This trend, which is often referred to as "the brain drain,"is also affecting the laboratory of Dr. Kerri A. Mowen, assistant professor inthe Departments of Chemical Physiology & Immunology and Microbial Sciencesat the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Mowen, who offers thecake-baking analogy above, tells me she is already losing colleagues to SouthKorea, Singapore and India.
 
"Those places are increasing their investments in research.And thus, we're cutting diversity out of our research community, which I thinkis important," Mowen says.
 
"I'm very cynical about all of this," Mowen confesses, andshe's clearly been giving a lot of thought to the sequestration, as she is fullof colorful analogies about the situation: "It's like the story of Darwin'sfinches. The beaks of the finches on one island are all one size because theyadapted over the years in order to get certain types of fruit. I fear that thisis what will happen here; that we will end up with a lot finches with the sametype of beak," she says.
 
Obviously, the NIH isn't the only government entity beingasked to tighten its belt. Some of you who may be traveling this conferenceseason have likely had your flights delayed, as airports are putting feweraircraft controllers on duty. More than half of the nation's 2.1 milliongovernment workers may be required to take furloughs if agencies are forced totrim budgets. About 70,000 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs maybe cut from them, and 14,000 teachers could lose their jobs. And if you'replanning a family summer vacay to one of our national parks, you're likely to encountershorter visitor hours, fewer rangers, locked restrooms and overflowing trashcans.
 
But cutting funding for the NIH? It's not the same thing,argue Civin and Mowen.
 
"This funding is important to our health and our jobs, andit makes no sense to include them in these across-the-board cuts," says Civin.
 
"All cuts are not created equal," Mowen agrees. "That iswhere the failing really is in the sequestration. From where I sit, I haven'tseen many signs of hope that the powers that be are making decisions based onevidence. If I were the owner of a small business, I wouldn't make decisionsthat cause my business to shut down. We have to recognize which parts of thebudget are investments, and what will lead to economic growth. That is what wereally need to get out of this entire situation."
 
At press time, President Barack Obama released a 2014 budgetproposal that seeks to cancel sequestration and replace it with an additional$1.8 trillion in deficit reduction through new revenue, $400 billion in savingsand $200 billion in discretionary cuts split evenly between defense andnondefense programs in 2017. That budget provides $31 billion for the NIH, aslight increase over the pre-sequestration amount provided for the agency.
 
"Some of the projections for next year are that we could getback to the budget that we had last year—and we should appreciate that as avictory," Civin commiserates.
 
It's clear that the sequestration cuts will affect how manyresearch projects are funded, the ability to hire qualified and talented staffin laboratories in every state and even the amount of equipment and tools thatlabs are able to purchase. But ultimately, the pinch that biomedicalresearchers are feeling now will be felt later by the patients who would havebenefitted from important advances in diseases that are becoming epidemics inour country, like diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and even cancer. Is it reallyfair to ignore this stark reality and put medical research in the same categoryas killing weeds in a public park?
 
Perhaps Mowen puts it best: "I feel that as scientists, wehaven't done a very good job at communicating what we do. The bottom line is,when you go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, you have the NIH—and thefunding it gave to the research that went into creating that drug 15 to 20years ago—to thank for it," she says.

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