Sequestration puts medical research on ice—literally

Experts fear that budget cuts will hamper medical research for years

Cuts under federal budget sequestration have created uncertainty over U.S. medical research, forcing many projects into freezers until funding issues are resolved.  

Altogether, sequestration cuts $85 billion from the federal budget this fiscal year, which may cause some agencies to trim back services and furlough employees.

For NIH, sequestration will cut 5.1% from the agency's budget in 2013—about $1.6 billion overall. Moreover, across-the-board cuts to research and development spending total $9.1 billion in 2013.

Although federal funding for medical research has faced cuts in the past, American Society of Hematology President Janis Abkowitz says that it has not been squeezed "for so long." Harvard Medical School cell biologist Joan Brugge says the cuts are affecting both new and experienced researchers. "We are really fearing for the worst because, essentially, in the 35 years I've been doing research I've never seen anything like this."

At the University of Washington School of Medicine, where Abkowitz heads the department of hematology, some faculty members are accepting salary cuts to preserve funding for research. Meanwhile, Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia plans to lower the number of new students in medical science doctorate programs next year.

For Georgetown University researcher Rebecca Riggins, the cuts have frozen her research. She has put breast tumor samples on ice while she waits to find out if her federal grant will be trimmed down in the third year of a five-year project.

Tyler Jacks, the head of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, "These grants have been slimmed down and slimmed down and slimmed down." He adds," We're cutting very close to the bone, if not into it."

Critics of federal government spending argue that medical research should not be a funding priority for the government. "Right now, I think our members would say to the medical community: Be content with what you have," said Dean Clancy, FreedomWorks' vice president of public policy.

However, Steven Houser—director of Temple's cardiovascular research center—argues that he fears the sequester cuts will hurt research for years to come, scaling back research graduate programs and making medical research a less desirable career (Tirrell, Bloomberg, 4/4).

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