Fight 4 Hematology: As Budget Cuts Loom, ASH Fights Back

Roxanne Nelson

December 11, 2012

ATLANTA, Georgia — In the face of budget cuts to biomedical research, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) is calling on its members to take action.

The Fight 4 Hematology campaign emphasizes the importance of government-funded research grants.


Specifically, the ASH is asking members to "demonstrate the value of biomedical research and the importance of investing in the NIH [National Institutes of Health]" to elected officials and the public. In addition, they are asking members to spread the word and encourage their colleagues to get involved.

According to a survey released here at the ASH 54th Annual Meeting, almost two thirds of American researchers making presentations at the meeting this year have relied on NIH funding. In addition, 86% of abstract presenters from the United States reported referencing an NIH-funded study for their own research over the course of their careers.

However, the future of government funding is in limbo because of the looming threat of budget cuts. As it is, the inflation-adjusted budget for NIH is almost 20% lower than it was in 2003. To make matters worse, on January 2, 2013, the NIH budget faces severe cuts when automatic across-the-board cuts to all federally funded programs, known as sequestration, will come into effect unless Congress acts to halt them.

Dire Effects on Patients and Research

Sequestration would have a dire effect on cancer research, according to Robert Hromas, MD, chair of the ASH Committee on Scientific Affairs. "We are literally at the edge of a cliff," he said. With sequestration "33,000 jobs will be lost, up to 2300 medical research grants will be lost, and funding for medical research in this country will take a huge step backwards," he explained.

The 2300 grants that would be cut are grants that would be funded in the future. "When you say that there's going to be an 8% cut, it doesn't sound too bad, until you realize it's about 35% of new grants," Dr. Hromas told Medscape Medical News. "The problem is that you're turning off the spigot of everything going forward. We won't see the effects for several years, so we're basically penalizing our children," he added.

But there is a larger problem than the loss of jobs and grants. "That's the loss of a whole generation of scientists. Who gets fired when times get tough? It's the young person, the new person on the job," he pointed out.

Another issue of national significance is the loss of American dominance in the biopharmaceutical industry. "We still lead the world; no one is close," Dr. Hromas said. "We're going to give away practically the only area where we have market dominance internationally and economically," he explained.

This is a national security issue and a defense issue, he said. "An economically strong country can withstand attacks much better than an economically weak country.... By turning off the spigot funding medical research, we are not only hurting the future of patients' lives, we're also economically destroying our future of our country," he noted.

Conversely, nations such as China, India, and Singapore are doing the exact opposite; they are pouring money into biomedical research, he pointed out.

The ASH survey also revealed that scientists and physicians are very concerned about the impact of reduced NIH funding. Of respondents from the United States, 75% reported that they are "extremely concerned" about the effect of NIH budget cuts on medical research and development and the ultimate impact the cuts will have on their careers.

Future Uncertain

"As a young investigator, I am dependent on the NIH to help fund my research," said ASH member Manali Patel, MD, MPH, a postdoctoral hematology/oncology medical fellow at Stanford University in California, whose research focuses on cancer quality and disparities. "The NIH is the preferred source of funding, rather than industry, because it is perceived as unbiased," she said.

Although Dr. Patel loves her research and wants to continue, she is unsure whether that will be possible, given the current climate.

She has extended her fellowship by a year and a half and is trying to obtain funding from the NIH. "But it keeps getting harder," she said in an interview. "Many long-term projects go on for years, and that can't happen without a grant. To continue my project without one, I'd have to take on more clinical responsibility or just give it up," she explained.

"Right now we are being advised to have an expansive reach when it comes to getting research funding, and to look beyond the NIH," she said. Research dollars are going to be cut first, Dr. Patel said.

The survey also showed that the impact of budget cuts extends outside the United States. More than half (52%) of the international presenters stated that they had referenced an NIH-funded study when conducting their own research, and 44% said they were "extremely concerned" about the proposed budget slashing.