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Originally published July 23, 2013 at 4:25 PM | Page modified July 23, 2013 at 4:40 PM

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Guest: Cuts to NIH research squeezes young scientists out

The U.S. must invest in biomedical research, writes guest columnist Abigail Schindler.

Special to The Times

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WHEN I think about not being a scientist anymore my heart hurts. But sadly, due to continued budget cuts to biomedical research, within the next few years that is most likely exactly what I will be — no longer a scientist, no longer a researcher searching for cures for disease.

And I am not alone. The number of young scientists being forced out of basic biomedical research in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate, and when this next generation of scientists leaves, it is not coming back.

Like me, these are early career scientists trained in the United States by U.S. tax dollars. We are scientists whose life goal has been to one day have our own research program at an academic institution committed to the search for breakthroughs and cures. Yet because of these budget cuts, catchphrases such as the “brain drain” are proving true. This is a bad omen for U.S. global leadership in biomedical research and the future health and wellness of our nation.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s premier biomedical research agency and the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world. Despite numerous public polls showing strong support among Americans for government funding of basic biomedical research, NIH’s budget was cut by $1.5 billion this year, or 5 percent, from $31 billion.

This dramatic cut means far fewer research grants can be funded. Some of these nonfunded grants might have seeded great biomedical success. But we will never know. NIH has funded more than 135 Nobel Prize winners. Most of them would never have received funding for their research proposals in this current funding environment.

Early career scientists will not be the only ones hurt by decreased funding for biomedical research. Everyone is affected. These cuts will impact all future medical advances in human health such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, heart disease and other debilitating diseases that touch each of us and the ones we love.

Likewise, these cuts will directly hurt the people of Seattle and Washington State. In 2012, NIH provided $459 million in funding to University of Washington and a total of $918 million to Washington state, the highest in the nation. Due to sequestration alone, Washington state is set to lose more than $45 million this fiscal year.

Recently, the U.S. House and Senate considered their respective spending bills for fiscal year 2014. The House proposal recommends a devastating 18.6 percent cut for the NIH. This would translate into a $5.4 billion reduction from the NIH’s current (and already reduced) level. Fortunately, the Senate proposal would provide NIH an increase of 6.1 percent above the current fiscal year.

I’m not asking for pity for me or my future. What I am asking is for people to think long-term regarding the health, wellness and economic prosperity of our great nation. Biomedical research produces an amazing return on investment, and research funding supports the jobs not only of scientists, but also of numerous support staff members.

My fear is that as Congress deliberates spending decisions for next year the NIH will be cut again, more young scientists will leave basic research, and potential biomedical breakthroughs will never come to realization.

Fortunately, Washingtonians are represented by strong supporters of biomedical research and the NIH. U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, all Democrats, will provide voices of reason. For the sake of America’s future leadership in biomedical research and the health of our nation, I urge all members of Congress to work together to find a fair and balanced approach to deficit reduction that replaces the sequestration and preserves NIH funding.

Abigail Schindler is a postdoctoral fellow at University of Washington, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in 2012.

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