By: Wendy Selig, MRA’s President & CEO
When you live and work in Washington, D.C., it’s easy to forget that most people don’t follow bills as they move through the legislative process or have Senate Sub-Committee homepages bookmarked in their browsers. Most people are moving forward with their daily lives, despite whatever Congressional posturing or scandal is the Beltway in any given week.
But the brinksmanship in Washington does threaten many important programs, and is already having a palpable impact on melanoma research, threatening to slow the pace at which new treatments are made available to patients.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the country’s largest source of investment in basic medical research, research that leads to discoveries, clinical trials, and ultimately, approved therapies for patients. With the cuts from sequestration, the NIH saw its fiscal 2013 budget decline by $1.5 billion. Adjusted for inflation, the NIH is currently funded at its lowest level in more than 40 years.
In real terms, NIH Director Francis Collins has said the cuts mean the agency will give out 650 fewer grants to promising scientists and researchers this year. Researchers currently funded by NIH may find their support drying up, forcing them to scale back their experiments or abandon promising projects altogether. The thought of the next breakthrough in melanoma treatment left to languish unexplored is devastating to the entire melanoma community.
It’s not just the cuts that have happened – and loom in additional years of sequester implementation without a change in course. The research ecosystem is also suffering from the uncertainty surrounding the confluence of the debt ceiling and appropriations discussions. NIH could face additional budget cuts as lawmakers scramble to hammer out last-minute deals to avoid a government shutdown this time around, while setting up future high-stakes negotiations down the road the next time a significant budget deadline is reached.
This uncertainty has not only affected NIH, but has also impacted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the agency responsible for moving treatments through the review and approval process. Strapped budgets at FDA are already creating real strains on this very important agency, and according to industry publication FierceBiotech, a shutdown could upend the agency’s drug approval timetable, delaying hearings and meetings and, tragically, delaying treatments from reaching patients.
Those of us working in other areas of the research enterprise – academia, industry and the non-profit community – want to work collaboratively with our partners in government to move beyond this cycle of cuts and threatened shutdowns, whose only impact is to generate uncertainty and prevent effective planning to maximize resources. In medical research, it is critical to be able to see the near, medium and long-term horizons. The current budget brinksmanship makes that extraordinarily difficult – and threatens to undermine the progress we have been making.