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NIH is on the chopping block

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Published on: Thursday, February 14, 2013

By Brian Compere

BETHESDA - If legislators do not act before March 1, federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, will suffer automatic cuts and heavy job losses.

The across-the-board cuts could lead NIH to lose up to 100,000 jobs, according to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who spoke Friday at a town hall event hosted by NIH.

According to a White House release, many research projects would have to be cut or cancelled because they would be difficult to pursue with diminished support. The release added that these cuts “would delay progress on the prevention of debilitating chronic conditions that are costly to society and delay development of more effective treatments for common and rare diseases affecting millions of Americans.”

NIH representatives declined to comment on any “pending budget.”

At the town hall, Cardin praised the NIH and the value of its research, asserting that the federal workers it employs are not responsible for the national deficit.

Although he detailed alternative ways the deficit can be reduced, he admitted that the likelihood these deficit-reducing measures will be passed by March 1, which he called “the day of judgment,” is “not very bright.”

“For the Congress, for the House and the Senate to reconcile their differences and get a bill to the president for signature taking care of all these issues by March the first is not likely. It’s possible, we’re gonna work for it, but it’s not likely,” he said, adding that he would support a short-term relief measure just so that the government could avoid sequestration.

Cardin explained that revenue is just as important to solving the federal government’s financial woes as spending cuts, although those tend to get the most attention.

Revenue could be increased by reducing tax expenditures, which give tax breaks to certain groups of taxpayers, because not all of them are necessary, just as not all spending is necessary, he said.

“We can certainly save, over a 10-year period, a couple hundred billion dollars by reducing these tax expenditures. That needs to be part of the equation,” Cardin said.

Cardin added that mandatory spending can be brought down – the best way is by bringing down the cost of health care, he said – and military operations in Afghanistan can be organized in a more efficient way leading up to their 2014 exit from the country.

“Combining those three sources, we should be able to do enough deficit reduction without the type of cuts of discretionary spending, particularly on the domestic side, and we should do it in a way that allows us to continue to invest in what will create the jobs we need for our economy,” Cardin said. “I wish I could give you (NIH) clearer direction on this, I wish there was a more definitive answer. Gridlock never created a single job in this country.”

Steve Kemgang, a high school student involved in NIH’s summer research internship program, said he is worried about how cuts happening now could affect the NIH’s ability to usher in the next generation of world-class researchers.

“There’s no way that you can really proceed and educate an effective new generation of research without having the opportunity to work with other scientists now,” he said. “NIH is probably the best research institution in the world and if they were just to all of a sudden not be able to continue this program, I don’t think research would probably as effective and maybe not the right people may come into the field and be ready for it.”

Although Kemgang said he would not expect the lab where he works on a variety of cancers to be affected by the sequester, he feels bad about anybody who could lose opportunities elsewhere within NIH.

For him to truly not worry about the fate of his lab and NIH as a whole, however, legislators will have to use the limited time they have left to make a move.

“The majority of Americans strongly support the work that’s done here and want to make sure you have adequate funding for it,” Cardin said. “Congress needs to act”

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