The impact of sequestration looms for biomedical research

by Avery Avrakotos, Education and Policy Coordinator

One of the stories that lined the front pages of newspapers earlier this week was that of a young girl from Mississippi. Born HIV positive and treated with an aggressive drug regiment from birth, the girl’s physicians were surprised when at the age of two and a half testing revealed her to be “functionally cured” of the virus.

The story of this little girl in Mississippi is exciting and intriguing, but one thing is clear, and was reiterated by the scientists who first shared her story: more research is needed before any conclusions about early and aggressive HIV treatment for infants can be made.

Of course, it will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with biomedical research in the United States that the research that prompted this revelation is at least partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, and it is one of the many government agencies facing uncertainty as a result of sequestration.

NIH faces a budget reduction of roughly $1.5 billion. What that means exactly for the organization that funds much of the basic science responsible for medical breakthroughs is still unclear.

In advance of the sequester, the agency issued a notice stating, “Should a sequestration occur, NIH likely will reduce the final FY 2013 funding levels of non-competing continuation grants and expects to make fewer competing awards to allow the agency to meet the available budget allocation.” Since the passage of the sequester deadline, NIH grantees and contractors have received similar news in the form of letters from the deputy director for extramural research at the agency, Sally Rockey, PhD, but specifics remain speculative.

One thing is for certain, funding cuts will have an impact on biomedical research and discoveries like the one in Mississippi. President and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Darrell G. Kirch, MD, reflected on this aspect of the cuts in a recent op-ed. “Medical research cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. Research interrupted by budget cuts, even for a few weeks, may mean years lost—years that could mean life or death for patients for whom medical research right now is their only hope,” Kirch explained.

It’s a tenuous time for research as budget cuts loom, and the future of the basic research that powers so much of the innovation in the United States is seemingly in jeopardy. In the coming weeks, we will do our best to keep you apprised of new developments on Ampersand, and, as always, we invite you to share your own reflections on the impact of the sequester below.