Research Advocates Sound Alarm on NIH Sequestration Hit

Daniel S. Levine

As part of the government spending cuts triggered on March 1, $1.6 billion will be cut from the National Institutes of Health, which advocates say will slow research and reverberate throughout the economy.

This article published with permission from The Burrill Report.

A total of $85 billion in across-the-board U.S. government spending cuts were triggered March 1 in the absence of a last-minute Congressional deal to delay or end the threat of sequestration. While the cuts are meant to spread the pain of austerity, advocates of biomedical research warn some $1.6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will slow important research and reverberate throughout the economy, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs.

“I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists,” NIH Director Collins told USA Today, speaking of the 5.1% cut the agency will face under sequestration. “A lot of good science just won’t be done.”

Already the NIH budget has been shrinking in real terms. The advocacy group Research!America reported in October that U.S. investment in biomedical research fell by more than $4 billion, or 3% in fiscal 2011 — the first drop in overall spending since the organization began tracking spending in 2002. While most of that decrease related to the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allocated $10.4 billion to NIH in the two previous fiscal years, the drop in funding extended beyond the act. The group noted that the decline followed several years of lost purchasing power that is undermining global competitiveness and economic opportunities.

A more recent analysis from United for Medical Research, a coalition of research institutions, patient groups, and private industry that advocates for increased federal funding for the NIH, said today the NIH supports about 402,000 jobs and $57.8 billion in economic output. It projects that a 5.1% sequester will cut the total jobs supported by NIH extramural spending by more than 20,500 and reduce new economic activity by $3 billion.

States where NIH funding generated the most jobs in 2012 include California (59,363), Massachusetts (34,031), New York (32,249), Texas (25,408) and Pennsylvania (23,709), according to the group. It says if the sequester takes effect, each of these states could lose more than 1,000, except California, which stands to lose more than 3,000 jobs.

“We cannot allow budget cuts, such as those looming from the sequester, to undermine the biomedical research enterprise, causing the loss of jobs and prosperity, as well as setting us back at a time when we are on the cusp of exciting new advances in cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s and many other diseases,” says Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research.

But not everyone is concerned about the impact sequestration will have on the NIH. In fact, some critics of the government’s spending on biomedical research believe the mandatory cuts will do more good than harm.

The Heritage Foundation’s T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd point to a 2011 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that explored ways of achieving savings at NIH including the implementation of a 1% cap on the growth of its annual budget.

“Such reductions would encourage increased efficiencies throughout NIH and more careful focus on priorities that will provide the greatest benefits,” the CBO reported.

Before warning about the potential delay of “vital” research projects, President Obama should lead in ensuring that agencies such as the NIH use taxpayer dollars in ways that benefit the public good, write Gaiser and Lloyd.

“Reducing the NIH’s massively expanded budget to force such efficiencies would be a good place to start,” they wrote.

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