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Porter and Mfume: The Sequester Remains a Health Threat

The possibility of deep spending cuts to medical research remains alive and well

The fiscal-cliff deal has provided a soft landing for many taxpayers, but it failed to take onerous spending cuts for federal agencies off the table permanently. Under the deal, discretionary spending will be cut by $4 billion this year, the sequester has been delayed by two months and annual spending caps for nondefense expenditures have been reduced.

All in all, a bleak outcome for medical research and innovation. The threat of deep spending cuts to research remains alive and well, forcing scientists to mull over tough decisions that could have life-or-death consequences for patients. Do they forge ahead with innovative studies with no guarantee of continued government support, or do they shelve important projects that have the potential of solving medical mysteries?

Americans value the promise of research, and they expect their representatives to make it a higher priority, according to public opinion polls commissioned by Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance. Yet funding for research has failed to keep pace with scientific discovery, a growing research infrastructure and the health challenges of our nation as our population ages and health care costs continue to soar. Policymakers must recognize that our nation will pay the price for shrinking investments in research and development through missed opportunities to strengthen the economy and find cures and new treatments for deadly disease.

As former policymakers, we fully understand the need for deficit reduction, but we firmly believe it should be accomplished in a judicious manner that protects U.S. priorities. Another largely indiscriminate cut to government spending means fewer dollars for priorities like science, technology, engineering and math education and the noncommercial basic research that seeds private sector innovation. How can we continue to compete in a global environment with research funding at risk?

We are beginning to witness a reversal of fortune in the race to innovation. China, Europe and other countries are taking giant steps toward stronger, vibrant research economies while the U.S. remains cautiously on the sidelines, a fact viewed with dismay by many Americans who do not believe the U.S. will be No. 1 in science and innovation by the year 2020, according to polls. But they overwhelmingly demand action by policymakers to assure the U.S. retains leadership.

Our nation has provided funding for researchers at universities and other institutions across the country to engage in basic medical research, which in turn has spurred private sector discovery. The return on that investment is stunning. Deaths from heart disease have decreased 50 percent over the past 40 years; childhood cancer is now a treatable disease, not a death sentence; a person diagnosed with HIV today can expect to live to celebrate their 70th birthday; and vaccines have prevented illness and death from a host of childhood and even adult diseases. The drug discovery pipeline continues to expand with medical breakthroughs that will dramatically reduce mortality rates of life-threatening illnesses in this generation and the next. However, that expansion will be reversed if government-funded research is severely cut.

Medical research has shored up the economy, supporting more than 400,000 jobs and $62 billion in economic activity in fiscal 2011. Locally, Maryland received almost $1.7 billion in funding from the National Institutes of Health with most of the grants supporting innovative research conducted at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland College Park and thousands of jobs across the state. The ripple effect of government-supported research has expanded private sector innovation and allowed young scientists to unleash their creativity and imagination in research facilities nationwide. We can’t afford to lose the next generation of Nobel laureates to countries aggressively ramping up their investments in research and development.

Over the next couple of months, we urge leaders from both parties in the new Congress to roll up their sleeves and develop a plan for curbing unsustainable growth in entitlement spending, as well as tackling a tax overhaul. Those same leaders must allocate funding wisely, based on the potential impact to our nation’s health and prosperity. They must recognize that there is a responsible way to cut government spending that involves weeding out programs that don’t work or that are simply too costly for what can be achieved. The job of elected officials is to choose national priorities, and we believe those that advance scientific discovery and improve public health are among the highest. Our job is to hold them to that responsibility.

Former Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., is the chairman of Research!America. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., is a Research!America board member.

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