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Federal cuts to medical research would be devastating

Dean Larry J. Shapiro, MD, warns that going over the fiscal cliff will hurt our health and our economy.

December 6, 2012

By Larry J. Shapiro, MD
Reprinted from the Opinion section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

With an end-of-the-year deadline looming, Congress must focus its full attention on avoiding the “fiscal cliff,” the combination of deep spending cuts and tax increases set to begin in January.

Some $600 billion of the planned cuts will come from non-defense programs, which will have dire consequences for our health and our economy. That is because the cuts indiscriminately slash federal investment in medical research.

This short-sighted solution to the nation’s deficit problem would significantly delay new, life-saving medical treatments. But what many people don’t realize is that the massive cuts also would put a chokehold on the creation of high-tech jobs and threaten U.S. global competitiveness.

The major source of federal support for medical research is the National Institutes of Health. Investment in the NIH has made the United States the world leader in medical discovery and innovation. This funding has generated tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs and new technologies that have improved our lives and our health.

But as part of the fiscal cliff, funding for the NIH would drop by $2.5 billion next year. These cuts are predicted to eliminate more than 30,000 U.S. jobs and scuttle $4.5 billion in economic activity.

“Our sustained national commitment to medical research has allowed the United States to achieve tremendous progress against many devastating diseases, but continued investments are necessary to reap the full benefits of medical discoveries.”
Larry J. Shapiro, MD

Aside from the economic effects, the cutbacks seem particularly ill-advised when other countries, including China and South Korea, are making investments in biomedical research a high national priority.

Locally, the impact of the NIH cuts would be devastating. Scientists in Missouri have a strong track record in garnering NIH support. The state ranks 11th in the nation in the total economic impact of publicly funded research, adding nearly $1.2 billion annually to Missouri’s economy and supporting about 8,000 jobs.

The economic payoff of NIH funding is huge, and its impact on our local economy can’t be overstated. Consider, for example, the $3.8 billion the U.S. government invested in the Human Genome Project from 1988 to 2003. More than $300 million of that funding was awarded to Washington University scientists, who contributed substantially to the effort to decode the human genome.

Overall, the endeavor spurred an estimated $796 billion in U.S. economic activity, according to Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for research. And in just 2010, the growing field of genomics – launched by the success of the genome project – supported 310,000 jobs.

Federal investments in medical research also foster the development of new industries and technologies as discoveries move from the laboratory to the marketplace. In the past five years, research findings in our laboratories have spurred the creation of 13 biotech start-up companies. Six are right here in St. Louis, helping to drive the local economy.

Among U.S. medical schools, Washington University ranks 4th in NIH funding, receiving $372 million for research in 2011. This work supports critical research to help alleviate suffering and save the lives of patients with life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, asthma and Alzheimer’s disease.

With NIH support, we pioneered research to decipher the DNA of cancer patients’ tumors. The goal of this endeavor, which is just beginning to bear fruit, is to offer personalized treatment to cancer patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors. And early next year, our scientists will lead some of the world’s first clinical trials of drug treatments to prevent Alzheimer’s.

We are also exploring the root causes of obesity and malnutrition, identifying the early indicators of autism in infants and developing nano-sized particles to treat cancer and heart and lung diseases – all through NIH research investments.

It is precisely these kinds of innovative projects that are threatened by the federal budget cuts. And the irony is that the reductions will occur just as millions of baby boomers enter their golden years, when chronic medical conditions often reach epidemic proportions.

According to a new report by the advocacy group Research!America, the combined annual costs of treating Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes in the United States is $430 billion. This sum dwarfs the $31 billion the NIH invests annually in research for all diseases.

Our sustained national commitment to medical research has allowed the United States to achieve tremendous progress against many devastating diseases, but continued investments are necessary to reap the full benefits of medical discoveries.

As Congress and President Obama work toward a bipartisan solution to the nation’s deficit problem, let’s encourage them to make strategic decisions that preserve our investment in medical research so that we help – not hurt – our health and our economy.

Larry Shapiro, MD, Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean of Washington University School of MedicineDr. Larry J. Shapiro is executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the Washington University School of Medicine.

WUSTL senior leadership have communicated the concern of the University about sequestration to our Congressional Delegation. We are aware that many scientific representative organizations are actively encouraging people to make their feelings about sequestration known to their elected officials. Several of your Washington University colleagues have asked us about these outside activities. Many of these efforts have merit and should be considered. If you are interested in engaging your elected officials as a concerned individual citizen, you can visit to identify your representatives and find contact information.