(Some) Relief For Research Scientists In Congressional Budget Deal

Congress is poised to pass its $1 trillion appropriations bill to implement the broad budget deal worked out last year by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). With another round of across-the-board sequester cuts looming to the scientific research budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds most biomedical research around the nation, the budget deal produced a near-audible sigh of relief from scientists across the country.

The deal that Ryan and Murray negotiated and that Congress is set to pass in a final appropriations bill reverses $63 billion of sequester cuts for 2014. When the agreement was announced, the White House released a statement that the act “clears the path for critical investments in things like scientific research, which has the potential to unleash new innovation and new industries.” The final agreement still keeps the National Institutes of Health budget below 2012 levels, but it does avert about $1 billion in cuts, keeping the total budget at $29.9 billion.

The sequester cuts have taken a terrible toll on NIH-funded biomedical research, with 3,100 fewer research grants funded in 2013 than at the Institutes’ 2004 peak. Were the sequester to continue, the National Cancer Institute would lose approximately $250 million in funding over the next ten years.

Dr. Walter Curran, executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute, recently testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee that “decreased funding to cancer research in all parts of the country… will devastate many of the research teams working on new treatments and new cures.” He went on to indicate that the disruptions in research progress “could delay finding new and effective therapies for thousands of patients by years.” This new budget, however, will hopefully prevent such a disaster.

Signs that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were starting to respond to the negative impact of the sequester on science and innovation were first apparent in the midst of the government shutdown earlier this year. During the shutdown, Republicans tried to pass a measure to fund the NIH in a separate bill along with other popular government functions, such as the National Parks.

When the budget deal came to a vote in December, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) finally released his long-held temper at conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth who urged lawmakers to vote no before even seeing the details of the bipartisan budget deal, dismissing them as “ridiculous.” But vote no they did: sixty-two tea party conservatives cast votes against this fairly small-scale compromise; they opposed it, they said, because it will increase absolute discretionary spending levels by even a relatively small amount.

These events give us cause for both hope and dismay. Hope that the Republican leadership in the House has learned the painful lesson of the government shutdown debacle, which is that extreme right conservatives do not have an interest in governing or even the best interests of the Republican Party at heart – and dismay that those hard-right elements are completely deaf to calls for even the smallest steps towards compromise.

Fortunately, this budget deal will prevent a government shutdown for at least a year and provide some funding stability at least through the mid-term elections of 2014. But it is still unclear what will happen after that.

The sequester cuts remain law for 2015-2021, and unless Congress intervenes as they did this year, the effects on a whole host of government functions, from defense to transportation to food inspections to scientific research, could be devastating. Thus, much will be riding on next year’s mid-term election. If the 2014 elections weaken the hold of the tea party on the Republicans in the House, and bipartisan compromise remains a viable option, there may be light at the end of this budget tunnel. But if the tea party wing of the House grows in size, and the Republicans win the majority in the Senate, the outlook for biomedical research, innovation, improved medicines, and the economy as a whole will be very bleak indeed.

Carlos S. Moreno is an NIH-funded scientist, Associate Professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Emory University, and a Member of the Winship Cancer Institute. He is a an Op Ed Project Public Voices Fellow.

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