‘Intelligent Intervention’ in Facing Federal Funding Impasse

If you keep up with current affairs, you know about the ongoing stalemate in setting our federal budget that has led to the “sequester”—across-the-board cuts in federal spending. Biomedical research and cancer research are among many worthwhile efforts supported by the federal government that have been damaged by this sequester.

Last Sunday, George Will wrote an outstanding column about the effect of the sequester on biomedical research titled, “The sequester’s a public health hazard”: http://tinyurl.com/will-nih

Mr. Will is much more eloquent than I am. Briefly, he states “research proposed by extraordinarily talented physicians and scientists cannot proceed because the required funding is prevented by the intentional irrationality by which the sequester is administered.” and “to see the federal government at its best, and sequester-driven spending cuts at their worst, visit the 322 acres where 25,000 people work for the National Institutes of Health.”

Most of the biomedical research supported by the NIH does not take place on those 322 acres, but across the country at research centers such as Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Iowa. Our researchers compete for cancer research funding from the NIH (and the National Cancer Institute, which is a branch of the NIH) based on the quality of their research ideas. We have been very successful in getting those grants. Indeed, the cancer research taking place on our campus is another example of support from the federal government at its best. This support has led to unprecedented scientific discoveries that are reducing the burden of cancer in our communities.

We also know we still have a long way to go. Our daily routine involves meetings with extraordinarily talented physicians and scientists to discuss new research directions and opportunities. Sadly, since the federal sequester, we also have meetings to discuss how we are going to deal with the sequester-induced cuts in research grant support from the NIH.  We do what we can to stretch every research dollar, and to find alternative sources of support for the most promising research, but there is no doubt progress is being slowed. As Mr. Will states, it is hard to avoid “dismay about exhilarations postponed.”

In his column, Mr. Will links medicine and policy. In both cases, some things get better by themselves, while others require intelligent intervention. The government’s sequester, and its effect on the NIH budget and biomedical research, will not get better on its own, and requires intelligent intervention. Legislators on both sides of the political aisle understand the importance of the work supported by the NIH. What we need is a greater outcry from the public telling our legislators that “intelligent intervention” is needed to overcome the current impasse, reverse this sequester, and support the NIH.