When The Words “Just” And “Before” Foreshadow Bad Things For Medical Research

By The Intersection | June 30, 2011 8:23 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist and policy wonk, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process

On Wednesday, President Obama gave a fiery press conference performance during which he ridiculed Republicans for their handling of the deficit reductions talks. As I listened to the President, I was reminded of previous legislative negotiations, such as the Health Care debate, where he similarly made it known that Congress was failing to meet their obligations to the American people. On each of those previous occasions, the President came out victorious, by achieving the legislation for which he was advocating.

The language used by the President this week suggests that he’s willing to fight to prevent a default on America’s debt. However, there were some comments that left me wondering if the U.S. scientific research community should brace for deeper cuts in the process.

At one point in the conference, President Obama explained that reaching the spending cut goals would be difficult and they would need to be distributed throughout the government. He said,

We can’t get to the $4 trillion in savings that we need by just cutting the 12 percent of the budget that pays for things like medical research and education funding and food inspectors and the weather service. And we can’t just do it by making seniors pay more for Medicare. So we’re going to need to look at the whole budget…

The word “just” implies to me that he has conceded that cuts must be made to the portion of the budget that includes medical research.

OK. So, we’ve already made those cuts, right? We shouldn’t expect additional cuts, should we? Later in the conference, the President says,

before we ask our seniors to pay more for health care, before we cut our children’s education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it’s only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up a tax break that no other business enjoys.

To me, this suggests that additional cuts in the research and innovation sectors are still on the table. I have to ask, can we afford more cuts? The FY 2011 Budget included more than $300 million in cuts from the National Institutes of Health budget. Francis Collins, Director of the Institute, has said that these cuts will reduce grant funding rates to an all time low.

Here’s my final question.  At what point do we admit that we have “sacrifice[d] our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs?”

Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter or read occasional posts at his personal blog, “American SciCo.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Economy, Science Budgets

Comments (4)

  1. Tom

    Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, Steel” is a great example of why we need to keep investing in research. To make a long story short, one of his main points is that human civilizations in Europe and Asia progressed & dominated much faster than those on other continents, such as in Australia and Africa, b/c of innovation.
    If we (America) limit our ability to innovate, other continents will eventually progress & dominate us.
    It’s a long book but well worth the read.

  2. Nullius in Verba

    Many people are not very numerate, and have difficulty understanding the quantities involved. Sometimes a picture helps.

    http://www.investors.com/image/RAMclrfnl-040511-pie.jpg.cms

    It’s much the same as balancing your household budget. If you spend more than you earn, going deeper in debt, you know it has to come to an end eventually. But every politician in office figures they can put it off for the next guy to deal with.

    Everybody who benefits from it always regards their own slice of the pie as absolutely essential, and wants the cuts to fall elsewhere – especially on those bits they disagree with politically. The result of which of course is everybody fighting each other in a mess of deals of political compromises, and every cut being resisted, until you end up where Greece is today. What happens when there is nobody left to bail you out? What happens when there is nobody left with any assets to loot?

    It has interesting parallels to the environmental issue, doesn’t it?

  3. Brian Too

    @2. Nullius in Verba,

    Agreed. The constructive way to solve the financial problem is not to say “my portion is more important than everyone else’s”. Even if there is some truth to the argument! The sacred cows have to replaced with regular cows.

    Rationality and sense begins to return when you look at the longer term. Once the finances have stabilized, more normal program funding levels can return.

    In this respect the President is correct when he says that “…we’re going to need to look at the whole budget…”. This is the irreplaceable role of executive oversight. To look at the entire picture and make choices.

  4. Matt B.

    The “just” worries me, the “before” doesn’t. The “before” stuff is just a way of phrasing, just as “that’s the last thing I want to do today” doesn’t mean that you actually want to do that action.

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