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Editorial: A lost generation of scientists

Those who think federal sequestration is little more than political theater might do well to take a closer look at the real and potentially long-lasting impacts it is having on the world of medical research.

The National Institutes of Health, the nation’s foremost advocate for, and sponsor of, cutting-edge science, is coping with a $1.55 billion hit from sequestration, on top of several years of flat funding (excluding a short-term bump from the stimulus package a few years ago).

What does this mean for doctors, medical students, lab researchers and patients?

To answer that question, there’s a pertinent story about one of the most devastating diseases to afflict humankind. In the early 20th century in the United States, polio was rampant (in 1916, it became an epidemic, with 6,000 deaths nationwide; in 1952, a record 57,628 cases were recorded). Today, summer is hay-fever season; in the 1950s, summer was polio season.

At first, one of the only effective treatments was the use of an iron lung, which enabled polio sufferers to breathe despite paralyzed chest muscles. The iron lung was cumbersome and meant that those with polio could live, but would be bound to frequent therapy with the iron lung in a hospital.

The medical response to polio could have ended with that device, which was favored, but grant-funded experimental research (in this case through a private foundation rather than the government) by Dr. Jonas Salk led to the development of a vaccine, and now polio is all but eradicated worldwide.

The point of this tale is to demonstrate the power and importance of grant-funded research, particularly those funds that are geared toward new competitive projects. With NIH’s budget problems, for every six new grant applications that are submitted, only one will be funded. That’s a success rate of about 16.7 percent, compared with 18 percent over the past two years.

Medical researchers say this is not due to a lack of quality ideas, but simply a more crowded field amid dwindling dollars.

The immediate loss of research is not even the scariest part, according to Margaret McCarthy, a University of Maryland School of Medicine professor who holds a Ph.D. in behavioral and neural sciences.

“We’re at grave risk of losing a generation of scientists,” she told The Daily Record. “It takes 10, 12 years to be trained as an independent scientist — it’s not something where we can just turn the tap off and turn it back on when we’re ready. So when the funds dry up, that can have devastating consequences. If we don’t have people coming up the pipeline, well, there are plenty of people going out the other direction, but there won’t be anyone to replace them.”

Her point is well-taken. If our society fails to perpetuate its investment in medical research, there will be gap years down the road when scientists simply don’t have the training or lab hours to make breakthroughs that could save lives. There’s also the long-term business concern about keeping pace with other countries so that the patents for these innovations remain in American hands.

This year, the federal government is spending $3.8 trillion (23 percent goes to Medicare and Medicaid; 22 percent goes to Social Security; 19.2 percent to the military). NIH’s budget represents about three-quarters of 1 percent of the overall federal budget.

Without agencies like the NIH investing in experimental research, the iron lung might well be the standard of care today. Who knows what other discoveries will remain covered if the nation’s political leaders continue to defund critical investments like this?