The head of the nation's medical research agency and leaders of Johns Hopkins hospital and medical school warned Monday that progress in fighting diseases could be slowed, jobs lost and scientists driven overseas unless across-the-board federal funding cuts are reversed.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joined Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Hopkins executives and a stroke survivor at Hopkins' Children's Center to appeal for restoration of $1.5 billion in NIH funding cuts as part of the budget "sequester" approved last winter by Congress.
They spoke before a living backdrop of young Hopkins researchers, described by Mikulski as members of a "breakthrough generation" whose quest for advances in treatment of debilitating diseases may be affected.
"I want to cancel sequester," said Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding that at least some of the funds could be restored through other "strategic" spending cuts and elimination of some tax credits. She said help for those afflicted with cancer, strokes, Alzheimer's and other illnesses is at stake.
"America deserves better," said Collins, who explained that NIH is giving 700 fewer new research grants nationwide in the coming year, including more than a dozen grants denied Hopkins. Moreover, he said, NIH is trimming payments for grants already awarded. "We're putting an entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk and our nation at risk as well."
Hopkins, long a leading recipient of federal research dollars, has lost about $38 million in NIH grant funding, said Dr. Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hopkins medicine has lost $70 million in federal funding of all types from the sequester, he said, leading to "dozens" of layoffs.
Rothman said he could not be more specific about how many jobs had been lost, because details of the cuts "are still coming through." But Landon King, the school's vice dean, said those getting pink slips were primarily technicians and some postdoctoral fellows whose grant funding was reduced. The $27 million in NIH funding lost by the medical school alone represents about five percent of its federal research income, King explained, out of an overall $2 billion operating budget.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine also faces a loss of about $15 million in research funding of all types this year, largely as a result of sequestration, according to spokeswoman Karen Robinson. The school's total external research funding for the year is $429 million, she said.
UM has avoided laying off medical school staff so far by providing one-time "bridge" funds from other sources, said Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the medical school.
"But this is not sustainable," Reece said. "We're being optimistic, hopeful that we'll get a turnaround."
King, the Hopkins vice dean, said the school is likewise trying to minimize the impact of grant losses and reductions, but that's complicated by added competition for foundation grants and other sources of money.
Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, vowed to fight not just to restore NIH's $30 billion budget but to increase it by $1 billion next year. A Senate appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to address next year's NIH funding at a markup session this week.
"Sure, I want to reduce our public debt," Mikulski said. "But I want to be able to reduce other things. I want to be able to reduce the rates of Alzheimer's in this country. I want to be able to reduce autism."
She noted that 80 percent of the money spent under Medicaid goes to treat older people suffering cognitive impairments related to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases.
"If we could find out either the cure or the containment of Alzheimer's, we could cut in half our Medicaid budget," she said. "So if you want to save money in Medicaid, don't increase the eligibility requirements. Increase biomedical research, and let the talented, genius people in our country be able to do their job."
Jose R. Maldonado, a 58-year-old stroke survivor from Columbia, said he's walking evidence of the importance of continuing to fund medical research. Hopkins doctors found he had an aneurysm in his brain, he said, which might have killed him had his condition been treated only as a stroke.
"If they really want to save money," Maldonado said of members of Congress, "I would throw money at these institutions."