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The Not So Hidden Costs of NIH Budget Cuts Drag Down PhDs

8/24/2017 7:05:17 AM

The Not So Hidden Costs of NIH Budget Cuts Drag Down PhDs
This opinion piece presents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of BioSpace.
August 24, 2017
By Josh Baxt, Breaking News Staff

Recently, I chatted with a scientist who was looking at a career change. He had been on a specific trajectory – PhD, postdoc, principal investigator – but that wasn’t working out for him. Steady grant funding was hard to come by.

He was interested in becoming a science writer and wanted to pick my brain. There’s nothing wrong with being a writer – it’s what I do – but I keep thinking about the underused potential and the thousands of other researchers in similar situations.

Let’s be clear, not everyone gets to do exactly what they want in life. I don’t get to be a famous screenwriter. But are we forcing too many talented people to flee the lab? And by extension, are we losing valuable insights that might ultimately lead to better therapies or new diagnostics?

These questions have become even more urgent with the Trump administration’s budget outline. The proposal would cut $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health and more from other scientific agencies.
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This approach makes no sense on any level. It would stunt scientific discovery, discourage young scientists from staying in – or entering – the field and condemn thousands, possibly millions, to suffer needlessly from diseases that could have been cured.

This last point is particularly salient, as President Trump was elected on promises to keep our nation safe. This year, nearly 600,000 Americans will die from cancer. In other words, far more Americans are killed by cancer each month than have died in every terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I could make the same point with heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, etc.

These budget cuts probably won’t impact the care for middle aged and elderly members of Congress and the Trump Administration. The novel therapies that will save them at 75 are already in the lab or the pipeline. But their children will suffer and ours as well.

Draconian budget cuts, like the ones being proposed, have a cascade effect throughout the scientific enterprise. Seeing no future, gifted high school students, undergrads, PhD candidates and postdocs move on to more fertile sectors. Perhaps one of them will perfect something we really need, like a flying car or an app that tells us when the dog needs a walk.

Even if we recognize our mistake and restore scientific funding down the road, it will take years or even decades to recoup the losses. Those who left the life sciences aren’t likely to circle back after being burned once. Science is kind of like the military – there’s no substitute for training and experience. We’ll have to start from scratch.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 87 percent of voters think medical research cuts are a “bad idea.” When was the last time 87 percent of Americans agreed on anything? In that sense, Trump has united us, but only in our fears of disaster. We are proud that America leads the world in biomedical innovation. Let’s make sure that, five years from now, we don’t look back on that status with regret.

Josh Baxt has been a science and healthcare writer for more than 18 years, working at Scripps Health and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute before going freelance in 2011. He writes about molecular biology, genomics, pharmaceuticals, emerging medical technologies, regulation and public policy. He is based in San Diego.

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