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Sequester Clock Ticks as Uncertainty Grows for Biomedical Research Funding

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The protracted fight between the White House and Republican members of the House and Senate over the federal budget sequestration plan may be entering its late rounds — as the Obama administration and House leaders have recently proposed plans for either delaying or scaling back the cuts.

The sequester would force across-the-board cuts to federal discretionary spending, which would likely cut biomedical research funding by around 5.1 percent, and are scheduled to go into effect on March 1, unless a deal is worked out to trim the deficit through tax cuts, changes, or a mix of both.

The plans offered this week by the White House and House Speaker John Boehner (R – Ohio) do not detail how the cuts would impact funding for specific agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, but they do hint at a renewed willingness to wheel and deal toward a bargain that could avert the cuts altogether.

The sequester plan, which was set in motion in 2011 after the so-called supercommittee failed to create a large-scale plan for bringing down the federal deficit, would have a "devastating" effect on funding for the NIH and its myriad institutes, NIH Director Francis Collins told a Senate subcommittee nearly a year ago.

At that time, the sequester cuts were expected to be around 8 percent and it was scheduled to kick in at the stroke of the new year, but a deal struck between the White House and Congress at the end of 2012, the Taxpayer Relief Act, deferred the cuts until March and reduced them to around 5 percent across-the-board.

If the specter of the looming sequester date does not provide enough uncertainty for the biomedical research community, at the end of March the continuing resolution that has funded the federal government since October is set to expire, potentially offering an opportunity for a doubleheader donnybrook over the budget in a one month period.

"We also have the unfinished 2013 budget to deal with," and there is the expectation that the White House will release its budget proposal for 2014 some time in March, Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.

Zeitzer explained that even a deal to delay the sequester will amount to "kicking the can down the road."

The situation for the biomedical science community right now is sort of like the condemned inmate who gets a last-minute call from a governor, she suggested. "They may stay the execution, but nobody's talking about releasing the prisoner."

Zeitzer said that there are Republican members who want to see the sequester happen, but who may get cold feet as the deadline gets closer because the cuts also impact the Department of Defense, and that would be unpopular among even the most hardline deficit hawks.

If the sequester is pushed back, Zeitzer thinks it is likely that the continuing resolution will be extended and would keep federal funding at the current 2012 level until the sequester comes back around or a deal is reached.

"We've got another perfect budget storm brewing, and how all these factors will interact with each other is a mystery."

Warning Lawmakers of Consequences

Within this context, advocates like FASEB and others continue to make the case that biomedical research funding is too important to be part of a deficit-slashing solution.

The advocacy group United for Medical Research said this week that the roughly 5 percent cut from the sequester could lead to the loss of 20,500 jobs in the life sciences sector and as much as $3 billion in economic output.

UMR estimates that NIH funding supported over 402,000 jobs and helped to generate $57.8 billion in economic output in 2012. To remind lawmakers on Capitol Hill that this money trickles back into their districts, UMR also has provided a state-by-state breakdown of how much NIH funding is awarded to each of the states and how many jobs could be lost if the sequester is allowed to happen.

For example, in California, where NIH funding supported the most jobs, the sequester could lead to 3,000 fewer positions, according to UMR.

UMR President Carrie Wolinetz said in a statement that the organization's analysis "highlights the tremendous impact of NIH research on our country's economic vitality, fueling hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs across every state in the US."

"We cannot allow budget cuts, such as those looming from the sequester, to undermine the biomedical research enterprise, causing the loss of jobs and prosperity, as well as setting us back at a time when we are on the cusp of exciting new advances in cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's and many other diseases," Wolinetz said.

Another biomedical research supporter, Research! America, published a poll last month which found that 72 percent of Americans want to see medical research expanded in the first 100 days of this session of Congress. The poll also found that 83 percent of Americans believe that investing in medical innovation helps to create jobs and supports economic growth, and 60 percent think that leaders in Washington are not paying enough attention to fighting diseases.

Many Americans also are worried about the country's future competitiveness, with 41 percent saying that the US will not be the world leader in science and technology in the year 2020, according to the poll.

There has been evidence, however, that biomedical research has champions on Capitol Hill who want to see NIH funding spared from the butcher's block should the sequester go into effect. A bipartisan group of lawmakers just before the start of the New Year signed on to a letter to leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives asking them to consider the "critical importance" of NIH and to pursue "a thoughtful, balanced approach" to tackling deficit reduction.

The legislators also reminded the leadership that after nearly a decade of flat funding the NIH budget is already nearly 20 percent lower than what it was in 2003, when inflation is taken into consideration, and they urged the leaders to consider the "economic impact of sequestration on federally-funded research."

Planning for the Unknown

It is unclear at this point whether or not NIH leadership will be able to control where and how the cuts would be enacted if the sequester is enacted next month, Zeitzer told GWDN.

The Office of Management and Budget recently sent around a memo urging all federal agencies to intensify their efforts to prepare plans for the sequester, should it happen, and the "significant and harmful impacts" that will be felt across the government.

Because OMB said it does not know now how much funding government agencies will have for the remainder of the year – and knowing such things is OMB's main job – the memo stressed that all agencies need to be ready to operate with reduced budgets.

OMB said that steps that agencies like NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, and others could take may include using flexibility to minimize the impacts of the cuts to the agency's core mission, find ways to reduce the costs of the civilian workforce, such as imposing hiring freezes, releasing temporary employees, and not renewing contract hires, and reviewing grants and contracts for possible savings.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is expected to appear in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing next week with other agency heads to talk about how the sequester will affect HHS and agencies like NIH.

Zeitzer sees this as a good strategy and said that FASEB has been trying to get the White House to get its agency leaders in front of Congress and the cameras to talk about the sequester to remind leaders from both parties what these agencies are doing.
"What's interesting about this is that only in Washington could you have a situation where Republicans, Democrats, Independents, plutocrats, communists, everybody agrees that sequestration is a terrible way to do budget policy, and yet there's not a will to fix it."