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Shutdown, Budget Cuts Negatively Affect US Capability in Medicine

  • Carol Pearson

The U.S. government may be getting back to work, but the shutdown, budget cuts and automatic federal spending cuts known as the "sequester" have taken a toll on U.S. health agencies and researchers, and they have affected the quality of medical research in the U.S.

More than a week after all but essential U.S. government employees were told to go home, the Senate heard about the impact of the shutdown on scientific research. Alan Leshner, head of a key scientific organization, testified.

"This shutdown has come as a very serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise," said Leshner.

The shutdown came on top of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester in addition to budget cuts. This means fewer research grants and a slowdown in medical research.

Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health says the impact of these cuts threaten America's scientific reputation.

"We have been the leaders in biomedical research essentially for as long as you can remember. When you decrease the budget that’s already strained by being flat and not keeping up with inflation for several years, there’s a couple of things that happen. Some are immediately realized and some will be realized in a negative impact over the coming years," said Fauci.

Fauci says some of the immediate consequences involve the slowing down of vaccine trials and the development of new drugs. In the long term, scarce funding for research projects means fewer scientists will look for careers in medical research.

"We might be losing part of a generation of what would otherwise be creative, young investigators in the future," he said.

The National Institutes of Health are involved internationally in research on AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases. Another U.S. health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helps countries contain diseases such as influenza. Dr. Thomas Frieden heads the CDC, and a recent speech he gave in Washington is on YouTube.

"A disease outbreak reminds us that we are all connected by the air we breathe; that an outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere," said Frieden.

During the shutdown, the CDC has stopped monitoring flu outbreaks and keeping tabs on unfamiliar strains of the disease. Few illnesses are as deadly as the flu.

Once back at work after the shutdown, employees at both the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control will still not be able to make up for research not funded or the scarcity of jobs. As a result, some lives won't be saved, some suffering won't be lessened, and America might lose its place as the global leader in medical research.