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Scientists worry debt deal could hinder research

By Elizabeth Lopatto
Bloomberg News / August 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Prospective government spending cuts may slow Alzheimer’s disease research, stunt the careers of young scientists, and prevent the United States from working with other nations on alternate energy, scientists and lobbyists say.

If Congress doesn’t approve $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas, a broad swath of federal programs will be automatically slashed, including the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research; the National Science Foundation, which pays for basic science; and the Department of Energy, which runs national laboratories.

“With the rest of the world putting money into science and technology, why are we going in the other direction?’’ asked Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society. “We talk about job creation for the future, this is job destruction.’’

In the deal that increased the US debt limit, lawmakers agreed to threaten funding for the NIH, the Pentagon, and hundreds more government agencies with potentially deep cuts in hopes of forcing themselves to make difficult decisions on lowering the budget deficit.

The agreement created a special committee of six Republicans and six Democrats to come up with the $1.5 trillion in savings. If that effort fails to make it through Congress, automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion would kick in, starting in 2013. Defense spending would be reduced by 9.1 percent while nondefense programs would be targeted for a 7.9 percent cut.

The automatic cuts were designed to be so large that Congress would be motivated to approve the committee’s recommendations, said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. One reason they wouldn’t take effect until 2013 is to give lawmakers a year to reconsider them.

A 7.9 percent cut for NIH would be the largest in the agency’s history, amounting to about a $2.5 billion reduction in 2013. By comparison, the agency was cut $317 million this year.

For agencies whose budgets must be approved each year by Congress, those cuts would come on top of reductions lawmakers also agreed to as part of the debt-limit deal.

“I’m personally worried about the NIH,’’ said Patrick Clemins, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s got a huge budget, so it’s going to get a lot of attention.’’

The 325,000 scientists supported by the agency may see fewer and smaller research grants, said Ira Loss, a health industry analyst at Washington Analysis, while companies that make lab equipment could see demand for their wares fall.

“It could affect money spent on clinical trials for cancer research and all sorts of other projects the NIH is involved in trying to make our country healthier,’’ Loss said.

New grant proposals likely would be slashed disproportionately, said Randy Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. This would prove hard on young scientists, because limited money tends to go to investigators with a history of successful testing, he said.

What’s more, the threat of smaller future budgets can affect research now, said David Pugach, a lobbyist for the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society. Scientists may decide to save money if they are worried about grants. If there is less money to go around, he said, some will likely opt for more conservative research that is likely to show the progress often needed to win additional funding.

Public-sector researchers, who get about 70 percent of their funding from the US government, contributed to the discovery of as many as 1 in 5 medicines approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 2007, according to a study published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Investigators into Alzheimer’s disease receive funding through the NIH to study such matters as risk factors for the illness, how to prevent it and the basic science necessary to create treatments for a disease with no known cure.

New studies on these fronts may be threatened by cuts in NIH funding, and older studies might not be extended, said Robert Egge, the Alzheimer’s Association’s vice president for public policy and advocacy.

Without any preventive measures, aggregate payments for health care for Alzheimer sufferers are projected to increase from $183 billion in 2011 to $1.1 trillion in 2050, with Medicare and Medicaid, the government health programs for the elderly and poor, covering about 70 percent of the cost, according to a study by Egge’s group.