No such thing as a one-year cut for medical researchers

Before I was a congresswoman, I was a survivor of ovarian cancer. I was lucky — my cancer was found in its earliest stage, and I have now been cancer-free for 25 years. I know I am alive today by the grace of God and the innovations of biomedical research. But today, our longstanding commitment to funding medical research is in real danger, putting both our economy and the health of millions of Americans at risk.

Because of my battle with cancer, I arrived in Congress knowing firsthand the crucial importance of medical research. In fact, I feel one of the most important accomplishments of which I have been a part was the doubling of research money at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1998 and 2003.

This doubling of resources has reaped real dividends. The cure rate for some types of childhood leukemia is now at 80 percent. The rate of cancer deaths in the United States per year continues to fall. And we have seen new and promising vaccines to protect us from a range of viruses.

Earlier this year, I visited the Strittmatter Laboratory at Yale Medical School. In just the past year, Yale scientists have developed a new way to prevent staph infections by genetically manipulating cells. They have identified a single molecule that affects learning and memory, suggesting new treatments for Alzheimer’s. And they have managed the first step in generating and implanting artificial lung tissue, which, if successful, could remove the need for lung transplants and save many of the 400,000 Americans who die each year from lung disease.

As with labs across America, much of Yale’s research is conducted thanks to the NIH. And yet, the House Majority has recommended cutting NIH funding several times now. This is extremely misguided, and would have profoundly negative effects on job creation, the health of the American people and our ability to compete on the global stage.

The majority’s original appropriations proposal for 2011, H.R. 1, threatened to cut NIH funding by $1.6 billion. Had it passed, the number of new NIH competing grants would have declined by about 3,000, or nearly a third below 2010 levels. The application success rate would have dropped to 12.5 percent, an historic low. And a wide array of more than 100 clinical trials likely would have been halted or curtailed. 

Thankfully, this cut did not become law. But the final compromise package for 2011 still included a nearly $300 million cut to NIH, forcing NIH and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to cut back on grant aid by 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively. That might not sound like much, but it is not the direction we should be headed in right now. Cutting NIH and NCI funding negatively affects our economy. More importantly, it negatively affects the health of every single American, now and well into the future. 

We know that cutting medical research will cause job losses, even as we struggle with a full-blown jobs crisis. Every research grant awarded results in seven new jobs. And every single dollar of NIH funding is estimated to result in an additional two dollars of business activity and economic impact. This means that research has a nearly twofold return on our federal investment.

The economic losses aside, I am the survivor of a disease that kills most women inside of five years. And the prospect of seeing grant applicants having to put their remarkable, lifesaving research on hold because we cut funding is unconscionable to me.

There is no “one-year cut” to medical research. I heard this concern during my visit to the Yale Medical School earlier this year and continue to hear it when I meet with other researchers. Such a cut can turn an entire group of researchers away from the field, and patients will never see the rewards that might have been. In fact, we would only really recognize the tremendous loss we have suffered from these cuts years down the road, when the benefits of this groundbreaking research is not forthcoming. 

The discovery of fundamental knowledge about how we grow, age and become ill will dramatically slow. So too will new treatments for the prevention and treatment of disease. Investment opportunities for private industry will disappear, the university medical system will weaken, and the end result will be job losses, falling American competitiveness and a much diminished quality of life. 

While we have not yet seen a 2012 Health appropriations bill from the majority, we have already seen other federal scientific endeavors take a huge hit. For example, even though food-borne illnesses account for nearly 50 million illnesses, 100,000 hospitalizations, and more than 3,000 deaths each year, the budget for the Food and Drug Administration is set at more than 10 percent below this year. And under the budget outline put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the aggregate science budgets of the Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Science and Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could be reduced by as much as $2 billion, significantly affecting our global scientific leadership. 

We owe it to the millions struggling with illness and disease right now to keep pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Cutting-edge treatments and preventions for cancer, heart disease, stroke, hearing and visual impairment, arthritis — that is what medical research gives us: the gift of life, the gift of good health. It is a gift I have treasured for a quarter-century since my cancer diagnosis. And it is one every American deserves. We should not squander this gift for shortsighted reasons.

DeLauro is ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.