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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.