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A scientist from the National Center for Toxicological Research analyzes microarray results to measure and assess the level of genes found in a tissue sample. FDA photo by Michael J. Ermarth.
Rebecca Riggins, an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown University, was about to stick a FedEx shipping label onto a package containing about two dozen samples of human breast tumors for analysis when the phone rang. Her team was in the process of investigating why certain types of breast cancer respond well to the common hormone therapy Tamoxifen while others fare poorly. The tumor analysis was a critical part of the project.
The Feb. 25 phone call was from her colleague, the study's principal investigator. Program officials at the National Institutes of Health had just told him to expect at least a 50 percent reduction in funding to their research. It was part of the sequestration cuts to the federal budget, which include 5.1 percent cuts across the board to non-defense agencies.
She had no choice but to put the mailing on hold and move the samples to the freezer, where they remain today.
Riggins' team can no longer afford to continue some of their more expensive experiments, like the tumor analyses. And they're scaling back their smaller experiments involving breast cancer cells grown in the lab and mouse model studies.
"To do the most simple lab experiment, all of that is built in the grant," Riggins said. "I'm keeping a nervous eye on the stocks on the shelf. It makes it very difficult."
Deep federal budget cuts, which kicked in on March 1 after Congress failed to reach a budget compromise, are already forcing scientists to scale back their research and look elsewhere for funding. Fewer dollars will mean fewer research projects, layoffs among scientists and cuts to equipment, all of which could influence scientific and medical advances and ultimately affect patient care.
The National Institutes of Health, the country's largest supporter of basic research, is facing $1.6 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year. While most research grants from the NIH are awarded for a four or five-year duration, the federal budget operates on a fiscal-year time frame. Which means effects are immediate and likely to impact research that's already underway, according to Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California at San Francisco. UCSF, which is expected to lose about $28 million in research dollars, receives more money from the National Institutes of Health than any other research institution. Its overall budget is about $500 million.
"As funding gets cut back...it can affect both the personnel that are brought in and technology or supplies for an experiment," Yamamoto said. "In the best case, things are slowed. In the worst case, projects are cut entirely."
Some see the sequester as a necessary means of exercising spending restraint. Cato's Daniel Mitchell, for example, argues in this essay that "a sequester merely means that spending climbs by $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years rather than $2.5 trillion." And an essay by T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd, members of the Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders Project point to projects funded by the NIH that they cite as non-vital. One studied whether male fruit flies were more attracted to older or younger female fruit flies. Another looked at whether golfers perform better when using their imagination.