The Science of Sequestration

Last Tuesday’s New York Times article painted an unpleasant picture of the state of scientific research due to cutbacks with the sequestration. The $1 trillion in budget cuts have significantly slowed research momentum, which could lead to major setbacks in the health world. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, described 2013 as the “darkest” year to date for the agency, whose budget is suffering and distributing smaller numbers of grants than ever. What is most dangerous about these grant cutbacks is that researchers are forced to “tread water” rather than focus their energies exploring new and bold ideas, and “science is very badly served by that tread-water message.”

Stagnation in the scientific world is essentially a death sentence for innovative breakthroughs, discoveries that could lead to the emergence of new cures. Director of the Center for Computational Biology at Johns Hopkins University, Steven Salzberg, laments the loss of science by arguing that shorter grant cycles force scientist to not only scramble to obtain results more quickly, but also compels them to spend more time bogged down with paperwork than actually engaging in laboratory work. Regrettably these significant changes to the research landscape discourage younger scientists from persisting in this field.

Dr. Teresa Woodruff shares similar viewpoints to her collegiate colleagues by stating that the sequestration is about “more than red tape and bureaucracy,” it’s about threatening the lives of patients counting on innovations made through research. In her published opinion letter responding to this article, Dr. Woodruff lists diabetes, cancer, infertility, osteoporosis, hypertension, and thyroid conditions as just a handful of the ailments whose research is being hindered by the government’s cutbacks. Dr. Woodruff stresses that, “when laboratories lose financing, they lose people, ideas, innovations, and patient treatments.” Until government leaders prioritize biomedical research, the potential for fresh ideas, innovations, and cures to come to fruition will continue to diminish.