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Advocates Fight for Biomedical Research as 'Fiscal Cliff' Deadline Approaches

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The long-looming approach of the end-of-year deadline to avert a federal 'fiscal cliff' - the combined expiration of major tax cuts and enactment of across-the-board cuts to federal discretionary spending - has spurred the US research community into action as they have pressed for a deal that would spare science spending.

Advocacy organizations from across the bioscience and medical research enterprise in recent months have sent letters to the White House and Congress, lobbied congressional members directly, and made a public case for the value of biomedical research, which could see significant funding cuts if the 'cliff' is not avoided.

Along with ending tax cuts that have been in place for a decade, the sequestration included in the 'fiscal cliff' would cut non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending by 8.2 percent, which would have a "devastating" effect on the National Institutes of Health, according to NIH Director Francis Collins.

Although the tax cuts at stake here were designed to sunset after a decade, the sequestration plan that is scheduled to hit NDD spending in 2013 were triggered last year when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — also known as the 'super committee' — failed to reach a long-term compromise to cut the budget deficit.

A year of on-and-off negotiations between the White House and Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, which have intensified after the reelection of President Barack Obama, have led to a final weekend to work out a deal.

While the discussions have hinged on finding common ground on tax rates and spending on programs such as social security and Medicare, cuts included in the sequester would include a broad swathe defense and non-defense programs.

Groups advocating to protect biomedical research funding are hoping to make the case to all those involved in the talks that NDD spending for science would be an innocent victim if a deal is not reached.

A group called the Coalition for the Life Sciences led a campaign under which one Nobel laureate each day for 21 days this month sent a letter to the White House and Congress that emphasized the value of biomedical research funding and urging an agreement that would dodge the cuts.

"This potentially very deep cut to the NIH as well as to all other federally-funded science would negatively impact job creation and seriously jeopardize the long-standing leadership position of the US in research and innovation." 2002 Nobel Laureate Robert Horvitz, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a recent statement.

The letters argue that the sequester will be particularly painful for NIH-funded research community because the agency's budget has been flat, or has not kept pace with inflation, for a number of years.

"This decrease in real funding has had a major negative impact on the ways researchers perform their scientific research and pursue their careers, laboratories operate, and universities hire.... Some [experienced researchers] have been forced to close their labs, and many of the brightest and most promising young investigators are pursuing other career options entirely. Sequestration will stop breakthrough research in its tracks, and we will be unable to right the course for many years to come," the coalition's letter reads.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has been hammering away at the sequester issue since it was enacted, and earlier this month 14 members of its board went to Capitol Hill to urge Congressional leaders to find a compromise with the president to avoid the cuts.

FASEB's board members made three central arguments for funding. They noted that cuts to NIH funding already have resulted in layoffs in some districts, that funding for research is not a major contributor to the national debt and that research into new treatments can address costly diseases, and that biomedical research keeps the US competitive globally and fuels economic growth and job creation.

Another group, United for Medical Research, has issued reports that make a case for investing in NIH funding and avoiding the sequester, including one earlier this year suggesting that a 7.8 percent cut at NIH would result in 33,000 fewer jobs in the US and a loss of $4.5 billion in economic activity.

UMR also this year released a report designed to send a chill through politicians, stating that China's financial commitment to biomedical research will be double that of the US within five years if current funding trends continue, without accounting for the sequester cuts.

Sequestration is not a predetermined certainty, however, and there is still a chance that a deal may be reached that could avoid the 'fiscal cliff' and subsequent sequestration by next week.

If not, it also is possible that when the tax cuts expire, the lines of the playing field will have been redrawn - because the tricky issue of which taxes to raise will become a more broadly palatable question about which taxes to cut - enabling a different agreement soon afterward that would enable Congress to restore funding to NIH and other NDD-funded agencies.

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