Never before have so many people in the medical research community and the public at large united in such a public way to express their collective support for medical research.
—Margaret Foti, PhD, MD(hc)
In estimated 10,000 demonstrators filled the streets in front of Washington, DC’s historic Carnegie Library on April 8 to protest budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health. The Rally for Medical Research was held to “emphasize to our policymakers that medical research must become a national priority,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, the CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), which was the founding organizer of this historic event.
A magnified Twitter feed scrolled across large electronic screens set up on the library grounds as emcee Cokie Roberts, of ABC News and National Public Radio, introduced medical researchers, members of Congress, and survivors of cancer and other diseases. En masse, the crowd sent text messages to members of Congress, and the event was live-streamed on YouTube. Shortly after the rally ended, it was the second most popular topic on Twitter.
“Never before have so many people in the medical research community and the public at large united in such a public way to express their collective support for medical research,” said Dr. Foti. More than 200 organizations participated in the rally, she said, and several institutions were holding related events in other parts of the country.
The NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, but has been relatively flat since then. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an ovarian cancer survivor, told the crowd that this year’s mandatory sequestration took $1.5 billion from the agency and that came on top of caps set in place by the Budget Control Act. The exact budget figure for fiscal year 2013 is still being calculated but is expected to be about $29.1 billion, said Mary Lee Watts, MPH, RD, Director of Government Relations at AACR.
Efforts are underway to reverse the trend. In Congress, Representatives David McKinley (R-WV) and Ed Markey (D-MA) are leading a bipartisan effort to get colleagues to sign on to a letter requesting $32 billion for NIH for next year. And Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) have offered an amendment to the 2014 budget resolution to boost funding. Representative McKinley and Senator Moran sent messages that were read at the rally.
Speakers emphasized not only the health benefits but also the economic returns on an investment in medical research. “Every $1 that goes to NIH results in $2 of business activity and economic impact,” said Representative DeLauro. “If we cannot get the naysayers on their humanity, let’s get them on the economics.”
Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, President of Rockefeller University, New York, noted, “last year, we spent $100 per citizen supporting NIH, but we spend $8,000 per citizen per year on medical care.” It will take medical research to bring down “the huge costs of care that otherwise may bankrupt us,” he said.
A former Chief Scientific Officer at Genentech, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne pointed out that the U.S. investment in basic science as a percentage of gross domestic product is now the lowest in 50 years. We can’t expect that private industry will take up the slack in funding, he said. “Return on investment in basic research takes too long from a business perspective…. Only government has the necessary long-term perspective.”
Impact on Research
The impact of federal budget cuts on basic research laboratories can be especially serious and long-lasting, said several cancer researchers after the rally.
“Even if temporary, the impact can be severe,” said AACR President Frank McCormick, PhD, Director of the University of California, San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. McCormick stressed the importance to a laboratory of steady, continuous funding.
“It takes years to establish a sustainable and effective group,” he said in an interview. A cut, though temporary, still means that post-docs and technicians have to leave and that fewer data are generated. In his institution, some faculty are taking voluntary pay cuts, he said, and the leadership is beginning to rethink long-term plans.
Young investigators especially are affected by NIH budget cuts. “This is a critical time in our careers,” said Aime Franco, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock. “There’s only so much data you have to work with when applying for grants, and if you can’t do research and get any more data, it’s hard to apply for more grants. It’s a scary time.”
Dr. Franco, who is past Chairperson of AACR’s Associate Member Council, said that special career sessions for young investigators at AACR’s Annual Meeting included advice on how to transfer their skills to fields other than research. The AACR meeting was underway at the nearby Washington Convention Center.
Another young researcher, Jessica Clague DeHart, PhD, an Assistant Research Professor at City of Hope, Duarte, California, and current Chairperson of the Council, said five or six of her colleagues had left academia and cancer research in the past few years. “If you’re young and have no grants, then you don’t have a job,” she said.
Drs. Franco and DeHart served as a youthful, two-woman pep squad, starting off the Rally with group cheers for “more progress, more hope, more life.” They said they turned into advocates when they realized it wasn’t enough to be a good scientist. “Now you need to be two things,” said Dr. DeHart, “a great scientist and a great advocate for funding.” ■
Disclosure: Drs. Foti, Tessier-Lavigne, McCormick, and Clague DeHart, and Ms. Watts reported no potential conflicts of interest.