AACR Rally Protests Cuts to NIH Budget

Sign-toting scientists, students, patients, and caregivers gathered near the Carnegie Library in Washington, DC, to protest recent cuts to the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of medical research in the world.

Photo Courtasy of AACR

Sign-toting scientists, students, patients, and caregivers gathered near the Carnegie Library in Washington, DC, Monday to protest recent cuts to the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest funder of medical research in the world.

Chanting “more progress, more hope, more life,” the crowd⎯estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 people by rally sponsor the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)⎯ heard speakers argue that a larger investment in the NIH would generate hope for people living with devastating diseases such as cancer, for young people seeking careers in research science, and for the American economy. Attendees also participated in text-message campaign aimed at federal lawmakers.

Along with the AACR, members of 200 organizations attended, along with more across the country who watched a live webcast of the event. The purpose was to encourage the federal government to prioritize investment in the NIH after years of allowing the agency’s budget to decline and recently slashing it further as part of the $85 billion sequestration cuts.

Under sequestration, the NIH saw its 2012 budget drop by 5.1%, or $1.5 billion. The cut at the agency will result in an estimated loss of 20,500 jobs and $3 billion in economic output, the AACR said in a statement.

The AACR temporarily closed down its 2013 annual meeting to focus the attention of attendees and the nation on the 11 AM rally. Television journalist Cokie Roberts moderated the event, whose 14 speakers included congressmen, patients, and caregivers.

In a statement, President Barack Obama voiced his support for increased funding of medical research. “In taking bold steps to further discovery today,” he said in the statement, “we will inspire the doers and makers of tomorrow and ensure America remains at the forefront of human understanding.”

Actress Maura Tierney spoke as a breast cancer survivor and an ambassador for Stand Up To Cancer, an effort of the entertainment industry to generate private funding of teams of scientists.

“I am someone who directly benefited from an important scientific advancement,” Tierney said. “Part of my treatment involved taking a drug that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and if I had been given this diagnosis (before that), I don’t know what my story would be. So I have a good sense of what’s at stake in this debate about federal funding for medical research, and the very short answer is: A lot.” Roberts agreed.

“There could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research,” she said. “We are right on the cusp of so many breakthroughs, and this is exactly the moment to push forward.”

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Connecticut, an ovarian cancer survivor, said that investments in the NIH between 1998 and 2003 have contributed to a 90% cure rate for childhood leukemia, the development of a vaccine against cervical cancer, and the approval of 11 new anticancer treatments in the past 18 months, including two representing new classes of drugs.

DeLauro added that every dollar invested in the NIH “results in $2 of business activity and economic impact.”

Yet, due to inflation and a lack of investment, the NIH has lost 20% of its purchasing power over the past nine years, and two years ago found itself approving a smaller percentage of grant requests than ever before, at 18%, DeLauro said. The fact that the agency’s funds for new research are so limited, many speakers worried, may dissuade promising young scientists from entering the field.

Finally, many speakers, including Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, president of the Rockefeller University and former chief scientific officer of Genentech, suggested that the rising costs of caring for people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer disease and other conditions will become increasingly prohibitive as compared with the investment it would take to generate new treatments and potential cures.

“Lifesaving cancer research is being cut because of ideology, and that’s wrong,” DeLauro said. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer when you go up to Capitol Hill. Tell them to cut the oil and gas subsidies and the tax breaks that send our jobs overseas, but not the biomedical research that saves our lives.”

Called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011, sequestration took effect automatically March 1 because Democrats and Republicans, embroiled in a debate over how best to reduce the deficit, failed to come up with a better plan.

Considered harsh, the sequester was included in the act as an incentive to promote compromise in the deficit reduction process, and was never intended to be implemented, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), part of Obama’s administration. An OMB report called sequestration a “blunt and indiscriminate instrument” that “would be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments, and core government functions.”

Coinciding with Monday’s rally was the announcement by the American Society of Hematology (ASH) of the first recipients of its Bridge Grants, a new $9 million award program designed to help hematologists continue their critical blood disease research amid severe funding reductions for the NIH. ASH was a platinum supporter of the rally.

“While the establishment of this program represents an unprecedented financial commitment on the part of ASH, we recognize that it provides nowhere near what is needed to replace the NIH funding that has been cut for hematology research,” said ASH President Janis L. Abkowitz, MD. “What we really need is for Congress to understand that medical research is a national priority.”

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