NIH Budget cuts: "We are putting a generation of young scientists at serious risk”

Earlier this week the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins spoke with Kai Rysdoll of NPR’s Marketplace about the effects of the sequester on medical research. The NIH had $1.6 billion cut from its budget. Those funds will come from trimming a percentage off of the agency’s multi-year grants. (This story from Nature has a good analysis of how the budget cuts will play out.)

As Collins said in his interview:

“This poison pill that when originally designed it was intended to be so poisonous that no one would swallow it — it got swallowed and we got poisoned.”

Obviously, the sequester doesn’t alter CIRM’s funding of stem cell scientists in California, but we’re not entirely immune from the ripple effects and nor are the patients waiting for the therapies our grantees are working to develop.

That’s because many of our grantees are working toward disease therapies with our grants in combination with grants from other foundations and agencies including the NIH. Even with $3 billion we can’t fund all the great science in the state. In a survey we did last year, our grantees had received almost $400 million in NIH funds based on the strength of their CIRM-funded research. And that’s just the grants they’ve gotten based on their CIRM work. All told, the NIH funds more than $3 billion in grants to California researchers each year. (Here’s a handy breakdown of that funding.)

Those grants fund research but also support senior scientists, laboratory staff and students, and in turn support the companies that supply the labs.

Collins compared the NIH to air traffic control, which took an immediate hit in the sequester:

“When you look at air traffic control, it affects people in obvious way. Medical research, maybe not so obvious. The lead time between making a discovery and having a clinical benefit may be years. But we are putting a generation of young scientists at serious risk.”

In a field where the end result—new therapies—takes years or even decades to reach patients, immediate effects of funding cuts won’t be apparent. But Collins mentioned talking with young scientists recently who were considering leaving the field, or pursuing research in another country. Losing those scientists will slow the development of new therapies for a generation. Ten and twenty years from now, those young people might not be pursuing medical research, or at least not in the U.S.

People won’t notice that slow down this year, or maybe even next year. But, to use an analogy from a previous blog, if there’s fewer ideas feeding into the first part of the research pipeline, there will be fewer therapies coming out the other side. In California, we’re glad we can buffer at least some of those effects and keep the pipeline moving.


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