Fiscal cliff endangers medicine, research and health of country

November 20, 2012 | by Shawn Le

Scientist working on t-cell

Talk of the “fiscal cliff” has largely focused on the impact to the military and potential job losses should the package of spending cuts and tax increases take effect as scheduled in January. But scientific and medical research would also be impacted, with potentially damaging effects for years to come.

Whether the “fiscal cliff” is a one-way route to economic doom or an exercise in political theater likely depends on one’s perception. Regardless, if U.S. legislators don’t approve a budget plan, then mandatory spending cuts affecting medical and scientific research will take effect, with far-reaching consequences.

One report says the National Institutes of Health alone would lose more than $2.5 billion in funding. Linda Malkas, Ph.D., who leads City of Hope’s basic science research efforts, and understands the real, long-term costs that mandatory cuts would have.

“The danger here to medical research in the United States is unprecedented,” she says. “We are truly on the threshold of leaps in our understanding and treatment of disease. But, in essence we are saying for the first time that the research of the United States will not move forward. We are saying that industry, Europe, Asia and so on can now lead the way.  But, they can’t, and they never did.  We have always been the explorers.  Our discoveries have influenced  the rest of the world. A stumble here will be felt for a generation or more.”

There have been some suggestions that ongoing negotiations might pay off, allowing the country to avoid mandatory deep cuts – and tax increases – that would follow. Yet, even with a budget deal, reductions will still be likely, potentially affecting research.

Discovering something new can take years, and turning that discovery into a practical benefit for patients can take additional years. Support for such research needs to be continuous to ensure the next generation of scientific discoveries. History already shows how the discovery of recombinant DNA technology led to the development of cancer drugs like Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan. What current discovery is already well along this path? What discoveries await?

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