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Frustrated with Federal Funding Cuts, Researchers Rally in DC

WASHINGTON (GenomeWeb News) – Thousands of supporters of biomedical research, including scientists, patient advocates, and disease survivors took to the street in Washington, DC, on Monday to pressure Congress to restore funding for the National Institutes of Health that has been lost through the recent sequestration.

The crowd of between 10,000 and 12,000, as estimated by the American Association for Cancer Research, filled a lawn and one block of K Street at Mount Vernon Square, about a mile from the US Capitol dome.

RallyPhoto2.jpgThe timing and location of this rally for medical research were not accidental. It is just over a month after the long-dreaded sequestration cut 5 percent of NIH's budget, and many in the biomedical research community are still seething. The event also was synchronized with AACR's annual meeting, which is host to an estimated 18,000 researchers, located just across the Square at the DC Convention Center.

But this rally was not merely a reaction to the $1.6 billion the sequestration slashed from NIH funding, a hit that could continue for a decade. It was a response to several years of building concerns that one flat budget after another at the agency have already begun to weaken the culture of US medical research.

"We all want to make it clear to our policy-makers that the continued erosion of funding for the most important research institute in the world, the National Institutes of Health, must stop. It has been going on since 2003," AACR President and CEO Margaret Foti said, kicking off the rally from a banner-decked stage on the square.

The failure of NIH funding to keep pace with biomedical inflation over the past decade may have fueled fears among the research community and patient advocates, but the sequester provided that community a prime opportunity to step out beyond policy deliberations and into the street.

"It could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research," ABC News analyst, National Public Radio contributor, and medical research supporter Cokie Roberts, who emceed the event, told the crowd. "We are at a point where technology is such that we are right on the cusp of so many breakthroughs, and this is exactly the moment to push forward, certainly not to pull back or to stay even."

"Make medical research a national priority," read one sign. "Increase NIH funding now," demanded another.

"More progress. More hope. More life," Foti chanted, leading a brief back-and-forth with the audience.

Foti also elicited strong applause when she said that President Barack Obama had sent his greetings to the rally, calling for a "serious, sustained effort to advance medical research."

"By investing in the best ideas, and supporting the work of our scientists, we will improve health and and change lives in ways we could have never imagined," Foti said, reading Obama's statement. "And in taking bold steps to further discovery today, we will inspire the doers and the makers of tomorrow, and ensure America remains at the forefront of human understanding."

Obama is expected to submit a budget to Congress this week, but it remains to be seen whether his proposal will include significant funding increases for scientific research.

RallyPhoto3.jpgMany of the speakers displayed a decidedly more aggressive tone than the President.

Research! America Chair and former Illinois Congressman John Porter pressed the crowd to funnel its energy into lawmakers' offices on the Hill and in their home districts.

"Get activist! Get militant! Get fighting mad!" Porter urged.

Several main themes were strung through the speeches and signs at the event: diseases kill scores of people, ruin lives, and cost the US a lot of money; science saves lives, spurs innovation and creates new industries and jobs; the US is in danger of discouraging young researchers and of losing ground to China and other nations; and biomedical research is a bipartisan issue and benefit.

Porter, a Republican, hammered on most of these points, while stressing that activism should be focused on members of Congress.

"So, let's ask them if disease touches their family and friends and whether that concerns them," he said. "Ask them if they are aware that people will die, others will be disabled or denied new therapies that would be developed to help them, if strong support for medical research were forthcoming. Ask them if they are going to allow America's worldwide leadership in science and technology slip away in the face of new and strong global competition."

Current member of Congress and cancer survivor Representative Rosa DeLauro (D – Conn.) fired up the crowd in part by personalizing the benefits of science, and in part by sharing her experience in government.

"One of my proudest moments in Congress is doubling NIH funding between 1998 and 2003 — something that we need to do again. … The doubling has reaped real dividends. Thanks to the research that NIH has supported, the progress has been amazing.

She pointed out that the cure rate for childhood leukemia has climbed to 90 percent, that there is now a vaccine for cervical cancer, and that in the past 18 months the Food and Drug Administration has approved 11 new cancer drugs, "including entirely new classes of drugs."

"Let's be clear, these breakthroughs do not just happen, we have to keep funding the life-saving research that pushed the frontiers of medical science. ... Every dollar that goes to the NIH results in $2 of business activity and economic impact," said DeLauro. "This means that research supports jobs and has a nearly two-fold return on our federal investment. If we cannot get the naysayers on the humanity of medical research, let's get them on the economics."

"And yet," she noted, "the NIH has lost 20 percent of its purchasing power over the last nine years. Since 2002, the purchasing power of the NIH has been cut by $1.2 billion. Two years ago, only 18 percent of the proposals were supported, and that is the lowest grant approval rate in NIH history."

That statement drew a lengthy "boo" from the crowd.

"Boo is right," responded DeLauro.

At a luncheon after the event, one researcher echoed the notion that the funding environment today looks discouraging to young investigators, and it has been this way for some time.

"In 2003 we started to feel the pressure – that is while I was still a postdoc – we felt the stress and pressures, and we were maybe a little bit more conservative in what we were doing" as a response to tighter budgeting, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Assistant Professor Aime Franco told GWDN.

According to Franco, however, the uncertainty of budgeting over the past couple of years, along with the recent sequestration, have amped up that pressure.

"Colleagues all around me are being cut non-stop," she said. "They've already got grants funded, [but] their budgets are being cut 10 to 20 percent," said Franco, a thryroid cancer researcher.

"It's becoming more and more difficult to get funded. I myself haven't been funded yet, it's a very frustrating environment to be in," she said. "They (NIH) are saying, 'You have a great grant, except for the funding level. We won't know for another six months whether we have the budget to keep it going.'"