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Advancing our nation’s health: We must not retreat now

Published On: Jun 24 2013 08:04:30 AM CDT

There is an old joke about the person who sets out to swim across the English Channel and then decides, after completing two-thirds of the journey, they can’t make it and turns around to swim back.

After many years of wise and productive investments in medical research, our federal government is about to turn around and swim back, even as the promising coastline of new treatments for debilitating and deadly illnesses is coming into view. The Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives has proposed a budget that would result in a devastating cut of nearly 20 percent to National Institutes of Health funding.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our scientists, clinicians, and most importantly our patients and their families implore that this outrageous proposal be stopped.

Since its inception nearly 70 years ago, NIH-funded research, ranging from basic discovery to clinical investigations, has dramatically improved the health and well-being of all Americans. The scourge of polio is gone. Childhood leukemia cure rates have dramatically improved. HIV transmission between mother and child has been nearly eliminated in this country. Deaths from heart disease have declined 60 percent, deaths from stroke by 70 percent. More recently, NIH support has led to a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, a test to predict breast-cancer recurrence, and the creation of insights into the genetic underpinnings of mental illness.

Our scientists at UW-Madison received more than $695 million in federal research support in the most recently completed fiscal year, mostly from the NIH. In the School of Medicine and Public Health alone, we currently receive $179 million in NIH funding. This supports teams of scientists focusing on innovative approaches to the diagnosis and treatment, as well as the prevention, of heart disease, cancer, neurologic disease, and other major illnesses. Our scientists are probing the mysterious complexities of the human brain in new and exciting ways which will lead to greater understanding of a variety of neurologic and psychiatric illnesses.

While the primary goal of all of our research is the advancement of the health of the people of Wisconsin, a vitally important secondary benefit is the advancement of our economy through job creation. NIH grants provide tremendous support for our local and state economic development, both directly through the funded research projects, and indirectly through the creation of “spin off” biotech companies, which have been so important throughout the state. But the proposed NIH budget cut would
have a devastating effect on our economy. If UW-Madison absorbed a proportional share of a 20% NIH budget reduction, it would translate into a loss of $139 million each year.

The NIH budget already has been cut by $1.7 billion due to sequestration. The House budget proposal will slash funding by three times that amount. Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH Director, warns that these cuts will be a “profound and devastating” blow at a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity. As he points out, medical research cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. It takes years to develop a well-trained and coordinated research team. The disruption of scientific projects due to budget cuts, even for a relatively short period of time, has long-term consequences.

We must complete our swim across the channel to the shores of new treatments and cures. All of us must urge Congress and the administration to create a bipartisan plan for replacing the sequester cuts to medical research and preserving the life-saving research that is funded by the NIH. The lives of the people of Wisconsin depend on it.

--Robert N. Golden, MD, Dean, UW School of Medicine and Public Health

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