Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis. For several years, many of us in the scientific research establishment have been warning of the potential impact on public health should the federal government continue to cut research spending.
The Ebola crisis has brought new clarity to that argument. As the virus burns a path through Western Africa and threatens these shores, the threat of Ebola – and contagions like it – is forcing the recognition that there is a direct correlation between reduced budgets and reduced treatments.
“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a [Ebola] vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins in an Oct. 12 interview.
Federal research funds available through NIH, the world’s largest source of medical research funding, have declined by 25 percent in real dollars over the last decade. This has translated into a smaller percentage of grants approved for NIH funding. Some 30 percent of grant applications were accepted for NIH funding in 2003 as compared to 17 percent last year as budgets became tighter.
Politifact.com, a non-partisan fact checking site of claims by politicians and other officials, cautions that Collins’ assertion is hard to verify.
“There’s no way to know what would have happened if the NIH hadn’t lost funding over the past 10 years. Nor can we predict how long it would take a particular drug to make it through the various phases of research and development,” Politicfact.com said.
Still, there is no doubt that Ebola research “like many other projects – has been subject to less available funding and wavering government priorities, meaning some research has been put on the shelf,” it found. “If those projects had been able to get their full funding, it’s possible they would have been ready before the current outbreak.
So what other crises in the wings are we under-prepared for as a result of the budget cuts? No one can tell for certain, but the funding dearth is playing out across the country and across disciplines.
“Federal funding cuts – especially as a result of sequestration – jeopardize the groundbreaking research taking place at institutions around the country,” says the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer for the organization, adds that the cuts directly impact public health. “In the end, really, this is about health. This is about creating new drugs, new treatments, new approaches to therapy that can make a difference,” she said.
At the University of Iowa, federal spending cuts are slowing the pace of research, according to a recent article.
“There are people suffering from disease and conditions that we think can be addressed by modern biotechnologies with new experimental approaches that are not really being investigated effectively for the want of research dollars,” said Charles Brenner, who chairs the biochemistry department at the UI Carver College of Medicine.
Similarly, at Weill Cornell Medical College federal cuts have resulted in fewer researchers making fewer discoveries, according to Dr. Laurie Glimcher, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University.
“Ten years ago, a group of three neuroscience faculty members at Weill Cornell Medical College supervised and trained 10 fully funded junior researchers in their lab. Now, because of substantial cuts to medical research funding, that number has dwindled to a mere three,” she wrote in a commentary.
“This scenario is playing out around the country as federal funding, typically the engine powering medical research, is dramatically scaled back,” she added.
The federal spending reality is that budgets are headed south because overall spending must be trimmed. But perhaps those who oversee our federal policymaking could do a much better job of matching the availability of funds to the need, the potential threat they are designed to counter, and the impact of action or inaction.