I’ve been to Washington DC on a number of occasions, but this was a totally new experience. Starting at 10am, I had a meeting every hour on the hour with congressional staff, and I asked them all the same thing: Don’t cut the budget of the NIH.
You may know that the government is struggling to keep itself funded. Last year, the Democrats punted the obligation of passing a budget for FY2011 to the next congress, and since the new Republican majority in the House has taken power, no one can agree on anything. The first bill out of the new House (HR1), was a spending bill that made huge cuts to many programs, including $1.6 billion from the NIH (that’s about 5%), but this bill died quickly in the Senate. For several months now, the House and Senate have been passing a series of “continuing resolutions,” that essentially fund the government for a few weeks. In fact, the day I was in DC, they were working on another one, keeping government funded until April 8th – a 3 week reprieve. Though some cuts have appeared in these “CRs,” so far the NIH has been spared.
There’s a lot of politics involved here. Everyone seems to agree that we need to cut the deficit (some economists seem to disagree, but that’s another issue), and no one in Congress is talking about tax increases. Something else no one seems to contemplate is cutting anything from military, social security, medicare or medicaid, which means that everything that must be cut out of a sliver of spending ammounting to less than 1/3 of the total budget. The budgets for the NIH and NSF fall in that sliver.
This is an untennable position for politicians to be in – every dollar in that sliver has a constituency, and no one wants it to be cut. I could see it in the staffers I talked to, both Democrat and Republican – they’re loathe to pick the losers. The group of scientists I was with, as part of the ASBMB “Hill Day,” were there to make the argument that NIH and NSF budgets should be spared from the chopping block. The NIH budget was doubled almost 10 years ago, but has not received an increase since then, and as such has continued to lose ground against inflation and the rising cost of doing research. In the 2010 budget, NIH got $32 billion, and it’s estimated that just to retain the same purchasing power, they’ll need $35 billion in 2012. Unlike some programs, scientific research can not bounce back from stop-start funding. Times are already tight for research scientists, and continued squeezing will push many young investigators out of the country or out of science all together.
“It’s a time of great uncertainty and the [scientific] community is very concerned,” says John Marburger, vice-president for research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At his university, researchers continue to put in proposals for federal funding, but they worry that a tighter budget will reduce success rates. Marburger, who was science adviser to former president George W. Bush, has spoken out against the cuts proposed by House Republicans. Postdocs and graduate students, who, he estimates, make up 80% of researchers supported by federal grants, will be hit hardest. “It will put people out on the streets.”
The uncertainty can be paralysing, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland. “The longer the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is under a continuing resolution, the more people may have questions about their grants,” she says. The latest continuing resolution “just kicks the can down the road”.
It seemed to me that the folks I talked to wanted to be convinced. If you think scientific research is important, please call your senators and congressmen. Tell them you’re a constituent, and that you believe in research and think science is important.