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U.S. must restore biomedical research funding

To us, biomedical research is not an abstract idea funded by wasteful government spending. It is work done by driven and passionate young people like ourselves who want to save lives -- but that work requires money, resources, and time.

 We are a group of graduate students at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program, earning our joint MD-PhD degrees with the goal of becoming physician scientists. We aim to be well versed in both scientific research methods and clinical practice so that we can expand and improve medical care, save lives, decrease the cost of health care and drive medicine forward. Thus far, the discussion surrounding the sequestration has lacked the perspective of trainees in biomedical research and the implications that budget cuts have had on our training and future careers.

For example, after seeing how devastating ovarian cancer can be for patients, one of us applied for a grant to develop new methods for early detection and treatment of ovarian cancer. This cancer is often diagnosed too late, when the disease has already spread and little can be done to cure it. Despite being awarded the grant in November of 2012, due to sequestration the funds and the research are on hold indefinitely.

Slashing research budgets not only delays short term research progress, in the long term it can discourage young scientists from pursuing a career dependent on federal funding altogether. Consequently, fewer trainees may choose careers to better understand and develop treatments for disorders such as ovarian cancer, breast cancer, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases, prolonging the time it takes for new and better treatments to become available for all.

In addition to affecting research funds, the sequester also cuts education funds needed to train the next generation of physician scientists.  This past July, roughly one in 10 MD-PhD training slots was lost throughout the country due to federal budget cuts, meaning even fewer physician-scientists will be entering the nation’s training pipeline to perform this life-saving work.

Federal sequestration risks losing a generation of young American physician scientists, and taxpayers and patients will ultimately bear the burden.  At current workforce levels it still takes about 10-15 years for a new drug to come to the market. With reduced numbers of researchers performing this kind of work, the amount of time it takes new drugs to be developed and to reach a patient’s medicine cabinet will most certainly increase.

Federal budget cuts may also reduce the diversity of the future workforce.  Like the people of Baltimore, we are a diverse group from all walks of life.  Just among the four of us, three are women (one Latina, one Asian-American, and one Indo-American), and two received a scholarship for talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend college and pursue a biomedical career.   In our program, some are military veterans, some attended historically black colleges and universities, and many have families and children.  

Federal funding enables our classmates from all socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue the long training required to learn both science and medicine to alleviate human suffering.  We believe it is important for future physician scientists to reflect the diversity of this region they wish to serve, and for that diversity to be threatened is tragic.

The federal government is the main financier of biomedical research in America, and Congress is reneging its obligation to its constituents by cutting research funds.  What this means for you, the taxpayers, is that fewer researchers may be studying and curing the diseases that affect you and your families, not just now, but also in the upcoming decades.  We encourage you to urge your representatives to restore federal biomedical research funding.

Bipasha Mukherjee-Clavin, Carolina Montaño, Neil M. Neumann and Wan R. Yang are MD-PhD students in the Johns Hopkins University Medical Scientist Training Program. The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of Johns Hopkins or the training program.

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