The Harsh Reality of Cutting Medical Research

Article excerpt

I am an associate professor of medicine at Washington University and co-director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at the Siteman Cancer Center. My goal is to eradicate breast cancer before my daughters grow up.

I have spent the better part of the last decade recruiting top young scientists to my laboratory, where we're working to understand the genetic mutations involved in breast cancer and to find a cure. During this time, my lab has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, which supports scientific research at academic universities and institutes across the country. The NIH provides research grants to scientists studying all aspects of human health and illness, including Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, depression, obesity and cancer.

For the past decade, the NIH has operated on a flat budget and actually lost 20 percent of its buying power due to inflation. While it may appear that academic researchers are treading water to stay afloat, in reality we are slowly sinking.

This past year, I have attempted to renew my NIH funding but failed. Even though my grant applications were favorably reviewed, the budget woes mean the money simply is not there. And the outlook is only getting worse.

Last month, as part of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, Congress cut $1.5 billion from the NIH. This represents 5 percent of the agency's $30 billion annual budget. This month, I laid off one of my best young cancer scientists, and two Ph.D. graduates in my lab switched career paths, primarily due to worries of uncertain future funding.

I fear that the scientific progress made over the last half- century is rapidly eroding.

The U.S. is losing its capital of scientific talent, primarily because research funding is so tight. Today, fewer young Americans are entering biomedical science careers. Less than 3 percent of successful NIH grant applicants are under the age of 36, down from 18 percent just 10 years ago. Losing the next generation of scientists will have an irreversible impact. Talented scientists that leave will not return; labs that shut down will never reopen.

The truth is that the NIH is a huge economic engine, supporting over 488,000 U. …