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Tamara CasparyBack to OpinionTamara Caspary

Cutting science budget a matter of life and death

Taylor Swift’s eyes teared up at last month’s nationally televised Stand Up to Cancer benefit as she debuted her latest hit, “Ronan,” based on a 3-year-old Phoenix boy with neuroblastoma, a nerve tissue cancer that predominantly affects children. The lyrics came in large part from his mother Maya Thompson, who graphically blogged about her son’s battle. In spite of surgeries and treatments at top cancer centers around the country, Ronan died just three days shy of his fourth birthday.

Like many tumors, Ronan’s neuroblastoma progressed due to a problem with a gene. The best hope for treatment is more basic research into how genes work so that we can intervene when problems occur. In fact, most advances in cancer treatment have come from basic biomedical research in organisms like yeast, worms and mice. But those kinds of discoveries—the kind that are being awarded this week with Nobel prizes—are in peril because of imminent federal budget cuts known as “sequestration.”

Last year, Congress instructed a bipartisan committee to negotiate a budget compromise with the stipulation that failure would result in sequestration, a word so massively off-putting that few bothered to define it. But those who did dubbed it the “fiscal cliff,” because it requires slashing all discretionary government spending, everything from education to military and farm programs, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), starting January 2nd.

The White House projects these mandatory, across the board cuts will reduce biomedical research spending 8.2%, or 2.5 billion dollars. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, is on record stating, “the amount of grants that are actually funded is already at a historically low level” and that the cuts “could do serious damage to the progress that we now see in medical research.” The NIH projects it will fund 2,300 fewer grants next year.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what discoveries will be missed. Basic science provides the spark from which almost every major health advance is based. Take fruit flies, used in the Nobel prize winning work of Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus: these gnats revealed a whole pathway of genes whose overactivation causes skin cancer. This past January the FDA approved a drug that blocks that pathway. Or take statins, the class of drugs that many Americans take to control their cholesterol. These drugs were developed from fundamental discoveries (receiving around a dozen Nobels), including experiments in fungi and bread mold, which underscore the critical contribution of all species in research.

According to the NIH, its funding of biomedical discovery has added just over ten years to the life expectancy of every American since World War II, so you can safely bet they would help someone you know well, if not you. This has to be one of the bargains of the century for the American taxpayer: for about $100 a year, we each get to live longer, with a higher quality of life. The imminent cuts will reduce that contribution by about $8—less than the price of a movie ticket. Fewer than 10% of research grants will get funded, down from around 30% a decade ago. The impact is especially harsh for underfunded areas of research like pediatric cancer, which despite being the most common disease killer in children currently gets 4% of the cancer research budget.

Slowing discovery during economic hard times may sound fine in theory, but it’s not only the sick who will fee the impact. Science in every state will be hit hard and, in eight states, the economic impact will exceed $100 million dollars. This will result in fewer jobs for scientists, lab support staff and businesses that depend on the research enterprise–exactly what we don’t need when we are trying to reverse hard economic times.

I run an NIH-funded basic science lab where we identify genes that control the development of the brain. These are exactly the sort of genes that go awry in tumors and that will help us understand conditions like autism and schizophrenia. I am all too aware that there is a long path from our latest discovery to a drug treatment. That long path is precisely why there is no time for delay. Just this year I’ve had to let go two postdoctoral fellows because of decreases in funding, and every day I hear from two or three applicants who are looking for work because their labs have been hit also.

Slowing development of new treatments and cures is only one of many broad-reaching problems sequestration will create, from fewer air traffic controllers and meat inspectors to shortages of childhood vaccines. Mandating across the board cuts is not the solution. We need the leadership in Congress to make hard decisions and reach real compromise. Lives are at stake. Ronan Thompson was one of the 2,300 children who die each year from a pediatric cancer, and his mom is determined to get that number reduced. In America, we have invested to have the best-trained scientific workforce in the world ready to back her up. For $8, how can we possibly think of saying no?

Tamara Caspary, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Human Genetics at the Emory School of Medicine. She runs an NIH-funded lab that identifies novel genes important for brain development and is a member of the Op-Ed Project.