In this blog we frequently discuss threats to medical research, ranging from harassment of individual scientists by animal right extremists, to spurious complaints by animal rights groups, to legislative proposals that may harm medical research. The threat we wish to draw your attention to today is somewhat different, as it impacts not only on medical research but on all areas of scientific research in the US, but it is one which demands urgent action.
As the end-of-year deadline for agreement on a new federal budget looms ever closer, and discussions in the US Congress continue, the danger of going over the “fiscal cliff” is increasing, an event that would trigger sequestration — automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect in January 2013. These cuts, amounting to about 600 billion in non-defence spending would reduce funding for research agencies by $3.9 billion in 2013 alone. These agencies include those charged with protecting the health of US citizens and developing innovative new therapies to treat disease, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and provide funding for many of the exciting research projects that we have discussed on this blog over the past few years.
The impact of such cuts, coming after almost a decade of stagnant funding levels – in reality funding decreases in most agencies once you adjust for inflation and a sharp increase in administrative costs over the same period – would be devastating for biomedical research in the USA, as the report “Sequestration: Health Research at the Breaking Point” from Research! America makes all too clear. The leadership of Research!America, a not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance whose members include many research institutions, charities and scientific associations, noted that this would:
- Result in the loss of 33,000 NIH-funded jobs and a $4.5 billion decline in economic activity.
- Eliminate NSF funding for more than 19,300 researchers, students and technical support personnel.
- Eliminate 2,500 specialized disease detectives in state and local health departments funded by the CDC, severely limiting efforts to identify and stop food borne outbreaks.
- Mean the loss of $111 million in FDA user fees that are vital for its evaluation activities, delaying patient access to new medical treatments.
What is not so easy to calculate is the longer-term impact when promising young researchers leave science due to career insecurity, when great new ideas go unstudied, when fewer opportunities exist to capitalize on scientific and technical advances, and when new therapeutic ideas don’t get developed to the point where they can be tested in the clinic. The Federal Government provides about 60% of funding for basic research, so it is clear that Research! America’s use of the term “devastating” to describe the impact of the cuts is fully justified. Indeed, investments in science and engineering have produced more than half of U.S. economic growth since WWII, with government funding fostering new knowledge, industrial innovation, and the training of future scientists and engineers, which explains why a recent Pew Research centre poll found that a clear majority of Americans oppose cuts in funding for scientific research.
Unfortunately there are those who see this crisis as an opportunity to renew their ongoing attacks on science. In particular the animal rights group PeTA – using the kind of misleading propaganda we have grown very used to - is urging it’s supporters to write to their senators and congressional representatives to ask then to cut all funding for animal research (Warning: PeTA Website). Such campaigns make it even more crucial for scientists and those who support science to make their voices heard by the politicians who are currently debating the budget.
So what can we all do about this?
Well, you can head over to the Advocacy and Action page at Research! America, where they have loads of information on how you can contact your Senator, Congressional Representative and President to let them know that while reducing the deficit is important it must not come at the cost of scientific advancement, future economic prosperity, health or human lives. They even have an online tool to help you compose messages to tell our politicians that we need cures, not cuts!
A new campaign SaveResearch.org has united dozens of research charities and scientific organizations to campaign against the cuts, and has lots of suggestions for action, including this research advocacy toolkit that offers lots of helpful advice and tips.
And if you are a scientist the American Association for the Advancement of science has a great resource where you can leave a message or video that they will take to Capitol Hill and the White House.
You might even take up the suggestion made by the editors of Nature to put on your lab coat and march on Capitol Hill.
Whatever you decide to do, doing nothing is not an option. We in the scientific community – and all those who support scientific research – need to make sure that our political representatives hear our voices, and act now before the damage is done!
Speaking of Research