Thwarted Effort to Avoid Collapse of American Biomedical Research: Petition Shut Down Then Restarted by Angry Researchers

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With only 4 hours and 446 signatures needed, a whitehouse.gov petition to increase NIH funding was closed 10 hours early—with a barrage of signatures coming in. A new petition is started by Dr. Stephen J Meltzer and Dr. Morgan C Giddings.

432,000 jobs. $62.1 billion in economic activity. 2.2:1 economic multiplier. New cures.

The impacts of NIH funding

“This is a deep wound." -Wafik S. El-Deiry, M.D. Ph.D.

On Sunday, March 18th, around 2pm EST, a “We the People” petition started by doctors and researchers to address the state of funding for biomedical research in the US, was shut down just shy of the required 25,000 signature mark. With no explanation provided for the shutdown by the Whitehouse, frustrated scientists quickly regrouped, forming a new petition to address the flat biomedical research budget.

The yanked petition has has added fuel to the fire of angst expressed by researchers over the issue of biomedical funding. “This is a critical time to raise our collective voice about biomedical funding in the US,” says Wellington Pham, assistant professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University.

President Obama, in his proposed FY 2013 budget, penned in a flat $30.7 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–which is responsible for supporting the majority of biomedical research in the USA. The flat budget amounts to an effective freeze in funding. After 9 years' of sub-inflation increases and some decrements in funding, researchers believe biomedical research progress is being stifled. “The continued flat funding means that, after counting for inflation, the effective budget for NIH-funded research has dropped by 30% or more in a decade. That’s a devastating blow,” says Dr. Morgan Giddings, who studies the links between cancer and genomes.

“I am both embarrassed and puzzled that we are fighting for our very lives for a $33 billion biomedical research budget for a country this prosperous, yet the biomedical research budget for Singapore is $40 billion annually for a country of 4 million people. The biomedical research budget of China is about $500 billion (4.3 trillion Yuan) annually,” says Dr. Charis Eng of the Cleveland Clinic. Her work is aimed at understanding how genetic abnormalities lead to cancer so that improved therapies can be developed. “The government thinks that having a flat NIH budget, which is the equivalent of a major cut in research investment, is saving money…science is an investment in the future, not an expense to be cut.”

“This is a ticking time bomb that will likely cause an implosion of the whole medical research enterprise in the US.” says Giddings who in addition to doing cancer research, runs a popular grant-writing website at morganonscience.com. Working with scientists on their grants, Dr. Giddings has seen firsthand how a lack of funding impacts potential researchers. "My efforts are a bit like the kid plugging dyke with an index finger. I help some individuals become more effective at getting grants, but that doesn't do much to stem the tsunami of problems that are resulting from inadequate overall funding for the biomedical sciences."

Dr. Stephen J. Meltzer, a Professor at John Hopkins University, sums up the mood of many researchers: “Promising careers have been cut short, important research projects have been aborted, hundreds of laboratories nationwide have shrunk or been shut down, established and accomplished senior researchers have been forced to abandon their programs, young scientists have departed from research of even left the country (even after many years of productive training), thousands of ancillary jobs have been lost, our worldwide medical research dominance has been eroded, and a large support network of laboratory supply and biotechnology companies has been drastically attenuated.”

The NIH is much more than a provider of research funding: statistics show that it is a powerful job-creating engine. NIH funds supported more than 432,000 jobs, and generated more than $62.1 billion in economic activity last year, according to a report from United for Medical Research. "Not only does NIH funding contribute directly to life-saving treatments and medical breakthroughs, it also supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country," UMC President Carrie Wolinetz said in a statement.

According to a report by Families USA, for each dollar spent by the NIH in external research funding, 2.2 dollars are generated in local economic activity in recipient states.

But the numbers don’t reveal the deeper story of NIH funding. “My cousin is retired from the Baltimore City Fire Dept. He contracted Hepatitis C from an ambulance call several years ago. He was lucky enough to get into a study at NIH which gave him a new, experimental regimen of drugs and therapies which saved his life. His viral load was reduced to 0 and he is doing fine today, all thanks to that program offered at NIH,” says Carl Miller, MD, a radiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Fortunately, for researchers, doctors, scientists, patients, and their families, this is not an issue that dies with the shutting down of one petition. Another “We the People” petition has been started at the whitehouse.gov website to get the President’s attention on the issue of a struggling biomedical research enterprise. “We need more people to be made aware of this crisis, and to please join us in sending a clear message to our President: Don’t let the United States fail in biomedical research,” says Stephen J. Meltzer. “We want our country to remain leaders in the development of new tests and treatments that improve lives and eliminate suffering for all diseases, including cancer, lupus, infections, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart attacks, and multiple sclerosis. This new petition seeks at to achieve that goal.”

The closing date for this new petition is April 17, 2012 and at the time of this article, 13,023 more signatures are still needed in order to prompt an official response. The petition can be found at http://wh.gov/R3R and more information about the effort can be found on Dr. Giddings science careers and grant writing blog.

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