How Sequestration Is Holding Back Scientific Research On Important Public Health Initiatives


(Credit: PBS)

Before sequestration’s automatic budget cuts kicked in, scientists warned that the proposed 8.2 across-the-board cut to the Nation Institute of Health could set back scientific innovation for a generation. Slashing those funds from NIH, one of the agency’s former directors pointed out, could prevent scientists from doing the critical research necessary to develop new treatments for chronic conditions and rare diseases.

And now that the sequester has taken effect, some of those scenarios are beginning to play out. As the Huffington Post reports, medical researchers are already scaling back their projects in areas that could have big implications for public health. At Temple University, one team of researchers hoped to develop a more effective method of repairing the heart to help Americans better recover from heart attacks — but now, thanks to the recent budget cuts, they may have to lay off staff or test a fewer number of potential therapies. Virginia Tech researchers who are studying depression, substance abuse, and post traumatic stress disorder have already been dealt a $640,000 blow to their grant funding, and are bracing for another $1 million in cuts. At the University of Kansas, the funds for behavioral research to help educators learn how to work with children with disabilities are in limbo.

And, since it seems clear that lawmakers aren’t going to take any action to reverse the cuts, scientists are being forced to move forward under this new reality:

Like other doctors and researchers interviewed, [Charles Greenwood, a researcher at the University of Kansas] said he would look to foundations and private philanthropy to help fill the void left by sequestration. But that isn’t a satisfactory replacement, he said, in part because the money tends to have specific strings attached.

“It is a hell of a way to run science,” he says. “We have had science since World War II. In the United States we were smart enough to develop a competitive process where the best ideas out there come up through the agencies responsible. And we get the best minds in the country to compete and the best ones win. Now, if it is up to philanthropy then you are just going to get someone’s theory.

Mainly, however, Greenwood and others are worried that the budget cuts will cause irrevocable damage to science in America. Investment in research and development was already declining prior to sequestration. NIH reported that it had offered 400 fewer grants in 2012 than in 2010. And as Jonathan Links, the chief risk officer at Johns Hopkins University, told The Huffington Post, funders were cutting back even further in anticipation of sequestration taking place.

It does seem clear that program officers are now being told moving forward to behave with sequestration. It is shifting from anticipation of to actual sequestration behavior,” said Links. “It is going to be cuts to grants and contracts and other sponsored activities. And our best guess is it is going to be some combination of cuts to future years of already funded grants, cuts to new awards, and cuts in the number of grants.”

Medical research isn’t the only area where Americans’ future health is being threatened threatened by sequestration. The budget cuts could also potentially result in fewer food inspections, fewer mental health resources, fewer people getting screened for HIV, fewer government resources to provide health insurance to low-income Americans, and fewer cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment.

Members of the medical community have blasted lawmakers for prioritizing their own convenience over the health sector. The cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which resulted in long delays at airports around the country for lawmakers during their frequent travel, is the one area of sequestration that Congress has rushed to undo — likely because it personally inconvenienced them. Cancer clinic employees have argued that there are more pressing concerns facing the nation, like the funding for their patient’s life-saving treatment, than long lines at the airport. The scientific researchers who are beginning to worry about a future “brain drain,” when the U.S. may not be able to attract and retain talented scientists without enough funding to go around, likely agree with that assessment.