Sequestration Sets In: How Can We Move Forward?
While it is not unusual to hear researchers complain about having to write grants and lack of funding, the tone of these conversations over the last few months has turned alarmingly grim. And, this week it became even worse.
Given the current government shutdown, the political divide that has brought Congress’ ability to govern to a screeching halt, and the potential for cuts much steeper than 5 percent to the NIH (the House budget calls for cuts of up to 18 percent for NIH), researchers can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines and not take action.
As a physician-scientist currently in the fourth year of my K08 award, I have become increasingly tuned into what has been happening to the NIH and its impact on my generation of researchers as well as the broader impact on science in this country. While I would like to believe that the current situation is just a low point (a very low one at that), I was particularly disconcerted to read what Francis Collins, head of the NIH, admitted to when speaking with young scientists these days:
“I would like to be able to say, ‘You know, we’ve had ups and downs in the past. There’s a long tradition here of a roller coaster that NIH has to ride on. This just happens to be a tough interval. It always got better before; it’ll get better this time.’ But as I say those things, I’m not sure I’m completely right, or convinced that I’m telling the truth.” (Huffington Post online, 8/23/2013)
It has been six months since sequestration was initiated this past March, and the realities of these unprecedented across-the-board budget cuts are only now starting to sink in. The NIH was forced to make a 5 percent, or $1.55 billion, cut to the 2013 budget. These cuts are across the board and affect every institute (including the NIDDK and NCI) and type of research supported by the NIH. This translates into an average cut of 4.7 percent to existing grants and a stunning 700 fewer funded grants compared to last year. There is also no increase in stipends for young scientists currently supported by the National Research Service Award. These cuts will, of course, negatively impact progress in biomedical research, but, equally as important, they threaten a whole generation of young researchers who will hang up their lab coats and exit science — probably for good.
In such bleak times, one asks if there is anything that can be done to ameliorate the situation. Recently, AGA representatives joined forces with the American Diabetes Association, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, American Kidney Foundation, American Society of Nephrology, American Urological Association and others to form a group called “Friends of the NIDDK” to bring awareness, education and advocacy surrounding the mission of the institute and to collaborate advocacy efforts on funding. This group met with NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers regarding the current funding climate. One of the key messages to emerge from this meeting was that researchers should contact their congressional representatives and invite them into their laboratories and clinics to show them the important work they are doing and its impact on society and local economies.
As a junior physician-scientist at risk of being part of a “sequestered generation” in science, I took Dr. Rodger’s advice by meeting with my congressional representative, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-IL, while in Washington recently and inviting him and his staff to see the important work being done by my colleagues and me. Rep. Rush has been a strong supporter of NIH funding. His staff suggested that we try to mobilize our colleagues from across the country to lobby those members who may not be as supportive of NIH or are unaware of the groundbreaking research and its potential to improve the quality of life of countless Americans.
During the recent AGA Public Affairs and Advocacy Committee meeting, we discussed AGA’s plans to develop a “Research Advocacy Action Plan,” which will provide members the tools they need to help set up meetings with their Congressman, as well as provide the pertinent information for each state and how it is supported by NIH research. We also discussed the 100 new members of Congress and the need to educate them on the importance of funding research and its potential to lower health-care costs.
Research is a critical part of our profession. None of us can afford to sit by and watch the research roller coaster keep going down.