Some Americans think sequestration is old news, but medical researchers say those cuts coming from Washington are hurting the future of scientific advancements in Tampa and across the country.
The government’s belt-tightening is expected to affect each of the 200-plus National Institutes of Health research grants at the University of South Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center.
The programs, worth $107 million in grant money, look long-term at diseases from lung cancer to heart disease to stroke. The NIH already is sending smaller checks to some USF researchers, and the money is coming less frequently, said Stephen Liggett, vice dean for research at the USF Health College of Medicine.
“It does slow things down almost immediately,” he said.
This result wasn’t foremost on the mind of members of Congress in 2011, when the 5 percent across-the-board spending cut was pitched as a way to deal with the nation’s massive budget deficit. A failure in Washington to find another solution has led to a slowdown of local and national medical innovation, said Moffitt President and Chief Executive Officer Alan List.
More than $37 million of the Tampa research hospital’s $62 million in cancer research grants comes from the NIH.
“It means there will be less money coming in. It means we will have to let people go. And we are going to be delaying some of the things we had hoped to accomplish,” List said. “Ultimately, it’s a real problem for the (patients) for whom we’re trying to get closer to new breakthroughs and discoveries.”
Apathy over the sequester could be related to the public’s disconnect between political decisions to slash spending and projects in its own backyard, officials said. Few people know that 83 percent of the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget goes to outside researchers like those in Tampa.
“There are vital investments the government makes, and this is one of them,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of the office of science policy and government affairs the American Association for Cancer Research.
USF Health and Moffitt leaders started preparing months ago for the cuts, although many of their researchers are still awaiting a final verdict on how their projects will be affected.
Each one of the 27 NIH divisions and centers has until later this month to say where and how it will make cuts. But already some cancer grants have been reduced to just more than half of the original award, Retzlaff said.
“Once they get the grant, it’s being sliced,” said Retzlaff, whose group helped organize an 8,000-person protest against cuts to medical research this month in Washington.
Many of the medical experiments the grants support are designed to last four or five years, or longer, said Stephen Liggett, vice dean for research at the USF Health College of Medicine. And the grants are written and approved with little or no surplus money, he said.
“The difficult part of this for ongoing research is that it’s difficult to dial something down and then dial it back up,” said Liggett, who is attempting to find some internal “bridge” funding to prevent any of USF Health’s $70 million in projects from shutting down.
It’s also making USF leaders question future decision-making. For example, Liggett asked, should post-doctoral fellows be offered a two-year stint instead of three? Or should less-expensive and less-sophisticated equipment be used to conduct experiments?
“The prudent thing to do is prepare for a budget that is destructively austere,” he said.
The impact of the sequester isn’t exclusive to existing grants, Liggett said. The NIH already has been reducing the number of overall grant programs it accepts. The 9,000 grants issued in 2012 was 400 fewer than just two years ago, NIH reports show.
Also, the odds of getting a grant are less likely. Years ago, about one in four applications might get a grant, worth roughly $100,000 to $450,000. This year, that percentage dropped to 17 percent.
This has a chilling effect on up-and-coming faculty aiming to get their first grants, Liggett said. Researchers might “leave the bench” and move into private industry jobs offering more money and more stability, he said.
“It will have repercussions for years to come,” he said.