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Death by a Thousand Cuts

With the fall in federal grant support through NIH, fewer and fewer scientists are getting the funding they need to continue research. As a result, too many are closing their laboratory doors forever. If you think that a laboratory's closing does not affect you, think again.
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budget cuts
budget cuts

It is likely that you don't realize what your state and our nation have lost in economic terms and research productivity as a result of recent cuts in the federal budget and budget instability brought on by a failure of Congress to pass a budget in a timely manner. Although some members of Congress strongly support increased funding for U.S. research, others argue that the time has come for the cost of basic biomedical research to be borne by industry and philanthropy. Those who make that argument either ignore, or are unaware, that this experiment has already been tried -- unsuccessfully.

Nearly 80 years ago, Louisiana Senator Joseph E. Ransdell failed at his efforts to get support for research through private and industrial resources. He instead determined that a federal agency, the National Institute of Health (NIH), was essential for supporting American biomedical research. It was clear in his day, as it is now, that basic research, which is an imperative precursor to cures for disease, was considered too risky for industry, whose primary goal is to turn research findings into potential therapies. At the NIH many things have changed over the last eight decades, including the addition of 26 more institutes and centers so that the research it supports addresses the full range of human disease; but the principle behind industry's role in research and discovery remains the same.

Like many taxpayers, you may think that taxes on your hard-earned money go to Washington, D.C. and stay there. In fact, 80 percent of the $29.2 billion that Congress appropriated to NIH last year was distributed through grants to scientists and public research institutions in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Despite the proven value of, and critical need for, this research, NIH-funded scientists have experienced a 22 percent reduction in what they could buy with federal research dollars over the past 10 years. Adding insult to injury, the NIH budget was reduced by 6 percent in real (not inflation adjusted) dollars between 2012 and 2013. With the fall in federal grant support through NIH, fewer and fewer scientists are getting the funding they need to continue research. As a result, too many are closing their laboratory doors forever. If you think that a laboratory's closing does not affect you, think again. The loss of a single laboratory not only denies the U. S. the advantages of new research, but it also means a loss of three to four employees who were contributors to their state's tax rolls and three to four people who buy their groceries at your store, their gas at your station, or their services from your company. They have less (or no) money to put into the collection plate at their house of worship, and those houses then have less they can provide in humanitarian efforts in the community.

That sounds bad, but those results are not the worst of it. Hopefully you are healthy now, but imagine if tomorrow you begin to have symptoms of disease. For instance, your doctor may find that your cholesterol is very high or that you have signs of a stroke. Had it not been for NIH-funded research, your physician would not have effective drugs to treat you. Drugs called "statins," which lower cholesterol, would have never been developed; we'd have had no clue that drugs that make your blood less "sticky" (so-called antiplatelet agents) could help prevent strokes (and heart attacks); and we'd be stuck with ineffective treatments for high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and heart attack.

Now let's conjecture that your own symptoms come from a disease that has no treatment. How do you think treatments are going to be found without research? When you need that treatment, you'll really want it, but your disease could take your life before the research engine can be restarted to find a cure. As Thomas Friedman emphasized in his New York Times column of September 24, 2013, countries that don't plan well for the future tend to do poorly when the future comes. Conversely, countries that do plan for the future tend to come out on top.

In his book, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America (2005 Reginery Publishing, Washington, D.C.), former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich makes similar points when he states, "Investing in science (including math and science education) is the most important strategic investment we make in continued American leadership economically and militarily. Investing in science has also been the most consistent, powerful, single mechanism for extending life and for improving the quality of life. When developing the federal budget, the investment in science should be considered immediately after operational military requirements and before any of the traditional domestic spending programs." He went on to say, "Congress should be aware, however, of the crippling impact of a flat budget when research opportunities and needs are growing."

It is troubling to see how those warnings have been disregarded. Results of that disregard can be seen already. For example, data show that in recent years, the percentage of science and engineering journal articles based on research performed in the U.S. has fallen, while the percentage of articles from Chinese researchers has gone up dramatically.

So what can you do about it? Get the message to your elected representatives that federal funding for research is very important to you. Those in the seat of power actually listen to their constituents because they know that if they don't listen, we can vote them out of office. Information that will help you get in contact with your representatives can be found by visiting the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's (FASEB) Resource Guide to Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill and at Home. To learn more about how much NIH grant money comes to your state or district, take a look at FASEB's recently updated NIH funding map. Share your dismay that funding close to home is falling and both your health and the leadership of our country are threatened. Finally, don't forget there's an election in two weeks. You have the power to elect those who will honor your priorities.