Alzheimer’s Research Among Science Efforts at Stake in Debt Deal

Prospective government spending cuts may slow Alzheimer’s disease research, stunt the careers of young scientists and prevent the U.S. from working with allies on alternate energy, scientists and lobbyists say.

If Congress doesn’t approve $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas, a broad swath of federal programs will be automatically slashed, including the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research; the National Science Foundation, which pays for basic science; and the Department of Energy, which runs national laboratories.

“With the rest of the world putting money into science and technology, why are we going in the other direction?” asked Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, in a telephone interview. “We talk about job creation for the future, this is job destruction.”

In the deal reached earlier this week that increased the U.S. debt limit, lawmakers agreed to threaten funding for the NIH, the Pentagon and hundreds more government agencies with potentially deep cuts in hopes of forcing themselves to make difficult decisions on lowering the budget deficit. The agreement created a special committee of six Republicans and six Democrats -- yet to be named -- to come up with the $1.5 trillion in budget savings. If that effort fails to make it through Congress, automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion would kick in, starting in 2013. Defense spending would be reduced by 9.1 percent while non-defense programs would be targeted for a 7.9 percent cut.

‘So Unimaginable’

The automatic cuts “were intentionally designed to be so large, so unimaginable, so irresponsible that Congress would be incented to approve the select committee recommendations,” said Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.

A 7.9 percent cut for NIH would be the largest in the agency’s history, amounting to about a $2.5 billion reduction in 2013. By comparison, the agency was cut $317 million this year.

For the NIH and other agencies whose budgets must be approved each year by Congress, those cuts would come on top of reductions lawmakers also agreed to as part of the debt-limit deal.

“I’m personally worried about the NIH,” said Patrick Clemins, a policy and budget director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s got a huge budget, so it’s going to get a lot of attention.”

Scientists Affected

The 325,000 scientists supported by the agency may see fewer and smaller research grants, said Ira Loss, an analyst at Washington Analysis LLC, while companies that make laboratory equipment would likely see demand for their wares diminish.

“It could affect money spent on clinical trials for cancer research and all sorts of other projects the NIH is involved in trying to make our country healthier,” said Loss, who has followed the health-care industry for more than 30 years.

New grant proposals likely would be slashed disproportionately, said Randy Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. This would prove hard on young scientists, because limited money tends to go to investigators with a history of successful testing, he said.

What’s more, the threat of smaller future budgets can affect research now, said David Pugach, a lobbyist for the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society. Scientists may decide to save money if they are worried about grants. If there’s less money to go around, he said, some will likely opt for more conservative research that is likely to show the progress often needed to win additional funding.

New Medicines

Public-sector researchers, who get about 70 percent of their funding from the U.S. government, contributed to the discovery of as many as 1 in 5 medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 2007, according to a study published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Investigators into Alzheimer’s disease receive funding through the NIH to study such matters as risk factors for the illness, how to prevent it and the basic science necessary to create treatments for a disease with no known cure. New studies on these fronts may be threatened cuts in NIH funding, and older studies might not be extended, said Robert Egge, the Alzheimer’s Association’s vice president for public policy and advocacy.

“We think there are ways to cut costs that compound problems down the road,” Egge said.

Cost of Care

Without any preventive measures, aggregate payments for health care for Alzheimer sufferers are projected to increase from $183 billion in 2011 to $1.1 trillion in 2050, with Medicare and Medicaid, the government health programs for the elderly and poor, covering about 70 percent of the cost, according to a study by Egge’s group.

Projects wholly or partly funded by the government that may be threatened by the automatic-cut mechanism are some of the next-generation physics projects, according to the American Physical Society, a nonprofit organization of 48,000 physicists. These include the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope; participation in ITER, an international collaboration building the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor; the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which is meant to study the most abundant material in the universe, dark matter; and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, meant to help scientists better understand nuclear astrophysics.

The automatic cuts dangling over Congress’s head are so large and would affect so many popular programs that many in Washington doubt they would be sustained. One reason they wouldn’t take effect until January 2013 is to give lawmakers a year to reconsider them.

Support for NIH

In that period, the NIH could draw on the bipartisan support it long has enjoyed in Congress. A largely Republican-controlled Congress about doubled the agency’s budget from 1998 to 2003.

The threat of deep cuts to medical research may help lawmakers forge an agreement that avoids the automatic reduction, said former Representative James Walsh, a New York Republican.

“We all had constituents who have cancer and heart disease and childhood diabetes -- and they are very effective advocates,” he said.

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