When Budget Cuts Become Unhealthy: GOP Whacks Cancer, Other Research

The House Appropriations Committee has become the meat grinder of the federal budget.

Along with their counterparts over in the Senate, House appropriators are the lawmakers who most closely control government spending. Since Republicans have controlled the House spending panel, they’ve used it to whack at the federal budget, again and again. Many of its targets — from legal aid to the poor, to hunger prevention for women and children — are just the sort of social programs one might expect to fall under a conservative fiscal axe.

More recently, though, Republicans — in Congress, and in states across the nation — have begun cutting funding for activities that effect an even wider number of Americans. This includes paying for research into things like curing cancer, which in the past largely have had strong bipartisan support.

Just this week, House appropriators approved a bill that would provide $64 million in the coming 2012 federal fiscal year for the Prostate Cancer Research Program within the Department of Defense. This would be a 20 percent reduction from the $80 million provided yearly since 2006 to study the disease, develop new drugs and save lives.

“Prostate cancer affects one in six men and disproportionally affects our nation’s veterans,” says Skip Lockwood, CEO of ZERO — The Project to End Prostate Cancer. “This decision by Congress will punish veterans who have already sacrificed a great deal f

Republicans are slashing federal support for research, such as work on anti-cancer treatments.

or their country.”

Veterans who have been exposed to chemical agents such as Agent Orange in Vietnam, other unknown chemicals that have emerged since the Desert Storm operations in Iraq, and depleted uranium are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer as their civilian counterparts.

Department of Defense funding has lead to new prostate cancer drugs reaching Food and Drug Administration approval in 2010 and 2011. Amgen’s Xgeva, which reduces bone breaks and other skeletal complications, and Johnson & Johnson’s Zytiga, a second-line treatment for castration-resistant prostate cancer, were both developed with funding from the Pentagon’s congressionally directed medical research programs, according to Lockwood’s group. Without this research funding, prostate cancer drugs that are currently available and saving lives would still remain in clinical trials, they say.

The potential damage these cuts could do are not limited to one bill, or one disease, either.

A ‘Strong Commitment’ Under Attack

Scientific leaders are worried about the level of support that research universities nationwide are receiving.

Beginning in the years after World War II, the United States “made a strong commitment to support and grow its research capacity using research universities and through the development of a comprehensive national laboratory system,” Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU), told those at a recent gathering in Washington. “That commitment resulted in a system of research universities and national laboratories that are the envy of the world and that other universities are now trying to emulate.”

Today, Smith says, 56 percent of the nation’s basic research is conducted at universities—three times the amount conducted by private industry or the federal government itself. “Basic research really underpins the innovations that drive our economy and improve our way of life,” he says.

And yet, he adds, “more and more on Capitol Hill, the word investment is seen as code for more spending. Of course that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about investing in universities or investing in research. We’re really talking about investment in the classic sense—spending resources now to ensure that we profit down the road.”

Traditionally, Republicans have supported such robust research, particularly in the health sciences. After all, diseases like cancer afflict all, no matter what one’s politics. Then a contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton got called out in 2007 by political fact-checkers by erroneously asserting that funding for the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) fell during George W. Bush’s Republican administration.

Bush had actually continued increases for the NIH budget that began under the presidency of Clinton’s husband.

However, research funding today is under assault by Republicans nationwide.

Speakers at the Forum on Science and Technology Policy offered several examples of the new skepticism and dissatisfaction coming from elected officials:

  • In Pennsylvania, new Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 52 percent reduction in general fund appropriations for Penn Sate and other universities;
  • In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich in March proposed a budget that cut about 10 percent, or $2.3 billion, from the state’s universities. At the same time, he proposed to continue a 3.5 percent cap on annual tuition increases and to require professors to teach more classes.
  • In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has pressed leaders at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to adopt reforms based on “Seven Breakthrough Principles” developed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The principles “largely are seen as de-emphasizing research and promoting instruction,” the Dallas Morning News reported recently. Faculty pay would be based more on teaching and professors would be evaluated based on their monetary value to the university.

These proposals represent a dramatic departure from the past 75 years of practice at research universities, speakers at the forum argued.

The partnerships that have supported research and universities must be updated and strengthened to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new era, these experts say.

“This is a time, more than ever before, where we need universities and federal and state governments and the private sector to work together as partners and not look at each other as adversaries,” Smith says. “It’s a time we need to think long-term and work to develop a national strategy to ensure the health of our research universities.”


Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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