Medical researchers raise concerns to Congress about declining funding

05/12/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: David Jolly, kathy castor, Dennis Ross, Moffitt Cancer Center, USF, medical research, NIH


From left: members of Congress David Jolly, Kathy Castor and Dennis Ross at Moffitt Cancer Center

photo by Janelle Irwin

Leaders of research centers in Tampa Bay are asking Congress to make sure there’s more funding available to find medical breakthroughs. The concerns come amid what has been a steady decline in National Institutes of Health funding as a result of mandatory spending cuts associated with last year’s sequester. Monday morning Alan List, CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, moderated a panel discussion on the impacts of reduced funding.

“New projects, even those rated as outstanding for scientific merit with NIH reviews, were put on hold because the national cancer institute offered 10% fewer grants in this past year. As a result of NIH funding reductions, our capacities to support post-doctoral research fellowships has been reduced by 25%.”

The University of South Florida, which partners with Moffitt on cancer research, gets more than 60% of its research funding from the NIH. And according to Paul Sanberg, senior vice president of research and innovation at USF, more than half of medical research comes from universities. He said the investments in research directly translate to greater economic development.

“The Tampa Bay Technology Incubator – business incubator – is 48 resident companies today. About half of those are life science medical and has about 200 employees with average salaries of about $70,000. This year alone, those start-up companies received about $12 million in total revenues in the past 12 months.”

And that should serve as incentive to Dennis Ross, a member of Congress from Lakeland.

“What we need to do is, we need to learn more from you as to not only how we can better achieve greater health, but how better we can get a result from the investment that we make as policy makers with taxpayer dollars so that we are able to advocate on your behalf.”

Ross was joined by two other Tampa Bay area Congress members. Kathy Castor, the only Democrat of the bunch, said she plans to propose a bill that would change how research dollars are allocated to the NIH. Right now, the spending is considered discretionary. Her bill would put it into mandatory spending with the likes of Medicare and Social Security.

“So that it is not subject to the whims of the Congress and the budget battles. That would take it out of any threat of sequester moving forward. Because, after all, is medical research in this day and age discretionary? I don’t think it is.”

That idea seemed to be dismissed by Pinellas County’s new representative in Congress, David Jolly. He agreed that more money should be put into medical research, but instead focused the solution on better managing the nation’s spending.

“I think we can achieve long-term increases in discretionary spending, long-term increases in research funding if we begin to address long-term balance budget as a whole. We are working in an environment with an ever-reducing budget as a result of some of the fiscal challenges we face and I’d like to see us be able to unleash more discretionary spending in the decades to come.”

Congress passed a budget this year that will stave off another sequester. But that doesn’t mean the debate won’t pop back up again in 2016. Thomas Sellers, Moffitt Center’s director, said the cuts have already had a far reaching impact on research including losing talented scientists whose research has been paused because their grants ran out.

“The best science is not being funded. The patients are dying at the rate of one every minute of every day. That’s unacceptable. We need to do something about that. So, we need the investment.”

USF president Judy Genshaft also weighed in on the importance of research funding. But she acknowledged that it’s something likely to be always swayed by politics.

“But we also know there are other resources that can be brought to bare through effective partnerships and an entrepreneurial approach that allows communities like the Tampa Bay region to get more impact from each dollar that is put into medical research. More effective treatment can help create a more sustainable healthcare system.”

Experts also appealed to the economic sensibilities of lawmakers, pointing out that Moffitt Cancer Center generates $1.7 billion in economic development. That includes both medical research and new inventions.

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