The US Debt Ceiling Debate and its Effect on Science

If the U.S. debt ceiling is not raised by Tuesday, August 2nd, the U.S. Treasury has warned that the country will not be able to pay all its obligations [1]. The debt ceiling is the amount that the country may legally borrow. Congressional Republicans have demanded budget cuts as a condition to raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a default.

Proposals from both Democrats and Republicans amount to a budget reduction of more than $1 trillion in spending over the next ten years; that’s approximately $100 billion per year. Defense spending cuts are off the table, and it’s likely that social security, Medicare and Medicaid programs will also be left untouched. Cuts are expected to be made to the roughly $600-billion domestic discretionary budget.

Science and the debt ceiling debate

The Strategic Plan: An Interview with NHGRI Director Eric Green

In January, we reported on the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) Vision to Move Genomic Medicine from Base Pairs to Bedside. Written by Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the NHGRI, Mark Guyer, Ph.D., Director of the Division of Extramural Research and Acting Deputy Director of the NHGRI, and others at the NHGRI, the plan maps the next steps the field of genomic research must take to discover medical secrets hidden within the human genome and transfer them to physicians and patients [1].

Interestingly, the strategic plan really isn’t a strategic plan but a list of issues to be addressed. And on this note, Daniel MacArthur, a genomics researcher and author of Wired’s Genetic Future, found the NHGRI document frustrating to read [2]:

… this is an impressive, worthwhile and highly readable piece of work, but one that ultimately feels unfinished. As research dollars begin to get tighter, there is an urgent need for an actual strategic plan for building the resources and tools required to make genomic medicine a reality within a realistic budget.

In other words: a specific NHGRI funding plan to overcome the issues. This could prove difficult in the current U.S. fiscal environment. Even though President Obama has resisted cuts to biomedical research funding in his 2012 budget proposal, the outlook isn’t bright. Decreasing NIH funding for short-range budget goals will disrupt five-year-long longitudinal studies make it impossible to start new research [3]. Moreover, it will hurt U.S. standing as the world leader in biomedical advances.

President Obama Resists Cuts to Biomedical Research Funding

In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month, he argued that government support for research and development to fund innovation is a necessary and critical investment that must be made, even in the face of a rising national debt. A coalition of biomedical researchers support his vision on science. The 2012 budget President Obama sent to Congress earlier this month seeks an increase in funding for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and in basic science at other agencies, while making cuts and freezes in many other areas of government.

Obama and biomedical research funding