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October 20, 2014

Sequester-Battered Research Budget Hurts Economy, Too

Today’s Washington Post compellingly traces the case of Yuntao Wu, a pioneering AIDS researcher at George Mason University whose funding has been cut off owing to across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress and President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, the article was at the bottom of Page A6, below a story on the capital’s latest fixation, Sen. Ted Cruz’s political showboating around Obamacare. The crisis in research funding — which I wrote about last week — deserves to be Page 1 once in awhile and to be addressed specifically as Congress considers how (I mean, whether) to keep the government operating.

As The Post and I related, the budget sequester has taken a 5.5 percent bite out of funding at the National Institutes of Health and all the other research programs of the federal government.

Most people think, well, 5.5 percent is no big deal — fewer paperclips, less discretionary travel, no leadership training retreats for a while.

In the case of research, that’s just wrong. It means fewer grants — 640 this year at NIH — a close-down of labs, layoffs for technical staff and no work for Ph.D. candidates.

It’s happening at universities all over the country. NIH Director Francis Collins says that the research community is “deeply demoralized.” Young scientists are wondering whether they have a future here in the United States.

What members of Congress — Republicans, especially — need to understand is that some government spending really is “investment” (as Democrats claim about most government spending) and not “a waste of taxpayers’ money” (which Republicans seem to think about all spending).

This year’s (and, probably, next year’s) sequester cuts follow on five years of flat appropriations, which means that inflation has eaten away 25 percent of the grant-making power of  NIH, the National Science Foundation and other research agencies.

Not only are people going to die because progress that could be made against AIDS, cancer, influenza and brain diseases will stop — the point of my previous post — but the United States is in danger of killing off one of its great competitive advantages in the world. Other countries are increasing their research investment — China, Taiwan, India, Singapore and South Korea, hugely.

The life sciences industry has been one of the country’s strongest performers in terms of providing high wage jobs. Jobs in the industry average $85,000 a year — double the U.S. average. And employment growth in the industry was double the national average.

But this year alone, according to Collins, 20,000 jobs will be lost in biomedical research. China already has more gene-sequencing capacity than the U.S., and its government is planning to spend more than $300 billion on biotech over the next five years. NIH’s budget is $29 billion a year.

If Congress and the administration ever begin serious negotiations on funding the government, they urgently need to find ways to exempt research from the sequester — in fact, to increase the funding substantially. As matters stand, we’re slaughtering America’s most golden goose.

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