Linkage 3/4: Budget Backlash, Overprevention, Mass Extinction

Sen. Dick Durbin tours Argonne National Laboratory with Rick Stevens, Professor of Computer Science (photo courtesy of Argonne)

Sen. Dick Durbin tours Argonne National Laboratory with Rick Stevens, Professor of Computer Science (photo courtesy of Argonne)

In Washington, the fight over budget cuts is well underway, as a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate tussle over the best way to reduce a multi-trillion dollar federal deficit. The first bill of the new House, H.R.1, set federal appropriations for the rest of fiscal year 2011 (ending in September) and snipped $61 billion from the budget, predominantly from discretionary domestic spending. One target of those cuts would be the National Institutes of Health budget, which would lose roughly $1.6 billion of its $32 billion budget for funding scientific research in the United States.

As you might expect, this news was not welcomed by Chicago-area researchers, who turned up in lab coats to support a news conference by Sen. Dick Durbin last Sunday at Northwestern University’s downtown campus. Durbin vowed to fight against the cuts as H.R.1 is discussed in the Senate, saying that interrupting the funding would slow progress toward new treatments for diseases such as AIDS, diabetes, and cancer. (video here)

“When you put these research projects on hold, you can’t ask the laboratory mice to take a nap,” Durbin said. “You can’t ask the cultures to stop growing – we’ll get back to you at the end of the fiscal year. And you can’t expect the professional researchers, the men and women who have dedicated their lives to medical research, to have certainty that next year they’ll have a job.”

Researchers from each of the major Chicago academic hospitals appeared at the conference and talked about how the proposed budget cuts could harm their own projects. Michelle Le Beau, director of the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center, discussed the biomedical research underway at UChicago thanks to the nearly $300 million in NIH funding received this year and last. Le Beau focused in on her own research examining therapy-related acute myeloid leukemia – a “very cruel and ironic” cancer caused by the chemotherapy and radiation treatment of a prior tumor. Any job losses that follow from NIH cuts could break up the expert team she has formed to study causes and treatment of the disease, she said.

“A lapse in funding will result in dismantling our highly specialized research team, and this leads to a loss of capability, because it takes years to assemble these teams again,” Le Beau said. “These are individuals who have trained for years to apply their extraordinarily unique skills. They have families to support and bills to pay.”

The threat of the budget cuts on science rippled beyond the Medical Center campus as well, concerning technology and physics researchers at UChicago-affiliated national laboratories. Eric D. Issaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, and Pier Oddone, director of Fermilab, partnered to write an editorial in the Chicago Tribune last week decrying the cuts and the dramatic consequences they would have for their institutions. With both labs losing 40 percent of their budget, thousands of employees would have to be furloughed or laid off, the directors said, as well as doing long-term harm to the nationa’s economy.

“Rolling back funding for basic science would dim our nation’s spirit of discovery and entrepreneurship,” Isaacs and Oddone wrote. “It would curtail research into how our world works — research that spurs new theories and technologies.”


It’s always a pleasure when our neighbor blog at the Law School, the Becker-Posner Blog, tackles a medical issue. Gary Becker, a professor of economics and sociology, and Richard Posner, a federal judge and senior lecturer at the Law School, offer an interesting outside perspective on topics that can become trapped in the medical echo chamber. This week, they covered medical screening, both agreeing with a increasingly popular notion that it is possible to do too much preventive medicine. “The increased prevalence of screening and preventive treatment has increased the health awareness of Americans and by doing so has increased the innate anxiety that people feel about sickness and mortality,” Posner writes. Both articles (Becker and Posner) and their comments sections are worth reading – as you might expect, the commenters for such a prestigious blog are quite insightful.

A nice column by Pauline Chen at the New York Times on the delicate ethics of early-phase clinical trials, with a comment from our Daniel Sulmasy, professor of medicine and ethics, on the “Lake Wobegon effect.” Sulmasy also spent part of this week in his role on President Obama’s bioethics commission, hearing testimony on topics including proper practices in overseas clinical trials (inspired by the exposure of this disturbing Guatemala syphilis study), genetic testing, and even mind-reading. Archived video of the sessions is available here.

An article in Nature proposes that we are seeing the beginnings of the 6th mass extinction in Earth’s history – and this time, we’re to blame. The study predicts that we could see more than three-quarters of species on Earth go extinct in the next hundreds or thousands of years, meeting the criteria of a mass extinction. University of Chicago paleontologist David Jablonski weighed in on the study – and whether it’s already too late to stop the extinction – at ScienceNOW.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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