Shaun O'Brien | How you can save science

Guest Column | Why the Federal budget cuts are bad for Penn’s scientific innovation

· February 15, 2013, 1:07 am

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Two weeks is all that remains before the largest automatic federal budget cuts take place, which could have devastating effects for the Penn community. If these automatic budgets cuts occur, expect Penn’s ability as a science innovator to be hampered as the sequester would slash billions from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and Graduate Medical Education programs — all programs that fund science research at Penn.

How could Congress and the president allow this to occur? The sequester was born out of two years of political fights over the national debt and federal spending habits. These automatic cuts were constructed as a nuclear option to force both parties into negotiations over federal spending, by having severe financial consequences if it was ever triggered. However the sequester mechanism was triggered in the fall of the 2011, as a bipartisan budget committee failed to compromise on how to rein in federal spending.

These automatic cuts call for equal, across-the-board cuts to military and nonmilitary agencies. With the recent Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, the automatic sequester was delayed until March 1, 2013, with the hope that a polarized Congress could figure out a solution.

At this point in time, nonmilitary agencies are slated to lose $42.5 billion in funding, or roughly 5 to 6 percent of their budgets this year. Additional reports are now suggesting that Congress is also content to let the sequester occur, which could have dire circumstances at Penn.

Penn biomedical research labs depend on funding from the NIH, which is slated to lose at least $1.6 billion this year — a savings of less than 1 percent of the federal budget. This would severely hamper the discovery of advances in basic and clinical science.

Penn is a leader for cancer immunotherapies, thanks in part to Carl June’s NIH-funded Phase I clinical trial that resulted in amazing regression of lymphoma in pediatric patients. Without the initial NIH investment, this trial would have been nearly impossible to conduct, as pharmaceutical companies deemed it too risky to invest in.

Breakthrough vaccine development has also occurred at Penn, as exemplified by Paul Offit’s pediatric rotavirus vaccine, another example of research that would not have been possible without NIH funds. Thanks to the sequester, reduced NIH funding will have a chilling effect on new therapeutic development at Penn and possibly drive away talented individuals from scientific careers.

Reduction in NIH funding would severely impact the training of the next generation of biomedical scientists and could impact the United States’ position as a leader in innovation in the coming decades. In addition, GME — or residency training — would also be hampered due to a 2 percent cut in Medicare, and thus is a real concern for Penn’s medical students and residents. This would also undercut the mission of the nation’s number one children’s hospital. The NSF, which funds researchers in the Engineering School and the School of Arts and Sciences, would also lose $300 to $500 million (5 to 6 percent) this year. Collectively, these cuts have the potential to create a lost generation of newly trained scientists, engineers and clinicians.

In light of this information, the Penn community needs to tell Congress and President Obama how important this funding is to the viability of this institution and to Pennsylvania as a whole. Pennsylvania is one of the top five recipients of federal research dollars. The biomedical industry alone creates millions of dollars of revenue in the state and more than 350,000 jobs including those due to the ripple effect. Continued support of research is good for the University and is a smart investment for the economy. Obviously, the sequester would be a job killer in this struggling economy.

We need you to act, in order to avoid the full severity of these automatic budget cuts. You can e-mail your Congressperson through this link.

We also welcome you to join the newly formed Penn Science Policy Group to learn more about this issue. This coalition of science graduate and postdoctoral students are contacting our Congressional leaders to promote the necessity of continuing to invest in American innovation. To learn about this group, email penn.science.policy@gmail.com.

Shaun O’Brien is a fifth-year immunology graduate student in the Perelman School of Medicine and co-president of the Penn Science Policy Group. He can be reached at penn.science.policy@gmail.com.

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