Monday, February 25, 2013

A perfect storm brewing over science

A dynamic panel of experts painted a vivid picture of the tsunami of budget and fiscal issues that threaten federal science programs during a FasterCures Webinar on “The 113th Congress and Medical Research: A Perfect Storm Approaching?” moderated by FasterCures Executive Director Margaret Anderson. While the prospects for avoiding widespread cuts seem bleak, the speakers remained optimistic that a loud, unified, focused argument from the medical research community could have an impact right now.

Sudip Parikh, vice president and general manager of Battelle Health & Analytics and a former senior staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee, walked participants through how the budget process is supposed to work and how it’s currently working – or not working, as the case may be. An across-the-board spending cut or “sequester” is set to take place on March 1, the government is operating on a continuing resolution set to expire at the end of March, the government could shut down if that is not resolved, and the national debt ceiling looms once again in mid-May. The budget process is about setting priorities, Parikh said, and the current breakdown is not only in the budget process but also in priority-setting. Priorities within the Labor-HHS appropriation, for example, which includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are competing head-to-head this year – medical research, Title I education spending, Pell grants – and they can’t all win. He reminded listeners that this is a long-term discussion and that spending levels set now will set the stage for years to come.

Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, as well as president of United for Medical Research, took participants on a tour of the members of Congress involved in decisionmaking about all these budget matters, including the leadership of appropriations subcommittees with responsibility for NIH’s and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) budgets as well as the Senate and House leadership responsible for overall budget negotiations. While decisions will be made at the end of the day by those top negotiators, they do still rely on input from the committees. Many of these members can be considered strong supporters of biomedical research, but in this year what has been historically a bipartisan priority is being consumed by the macro-level fiscal arguments. Still, Wolinetz argued that it is critical to continue to cultivate champions, including new ones such as Representatives Kevin Yoder, Ed Markey, Eric Cantor, and Steve Stivers, to replace old friends like Arlen Specter, John Porter, and Tom Harkin who are gone or will soon retire.

Ceci Connolly, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Health Research Institute and former Washington Post journalist, gave participants a flavor of the political environment in which budget negotiations are taking place this year. In addition to the unusual confluence of the budget, the sequester, and the debt ceiling, this is the beginning of President Obama’s second term, and Connolly noted that second terms can be a “double-edged sword.” On the one hand, they can liberate an Administration to take risks; on the other hand, they can cause the Administration to over-reach. And presidents don’t really have four years in which to accomplish their goals; they really have 12-18 months before attention turns to the next election. The Obama Administration, she said, is trying to get past the fiscal issues to what they consider their potential legacy issues of immigration reform and gun control. The advice she extended to medical research advocates was to focus on the compelling argument that medical research creates jobs and leverages significant economic activity, noting that in a recent PwC survey, 69 percent of Americans agreed that biomedical research is important to economic growth. She also recommended advocates expand the community, and build new alliances and relationships with others who benefit from research investments, including industry.

Parikh urged advocates to come up with an “ask” that’s clear and common across all stakeholders. “This isn’t just about the next three months; we need to set up for the next two years. The Fiscal Year 14 process is underway.”

FasterCuresSequestration Station and United for Medical Research’s Web site provide information and resources about sequestration and its impacts on research and the economy.

View an archive of this Webinar here.

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