Funding cuts leave wounds in research

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Katie Holmes/Staff

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After less than a year, the misguided sequester experiment is seemingly coming to an end. But the damage done by it —  and the austerity policies from which it originated — lives on in cuts to vital programs such as science research and may be with us for a long time to come. It’s up to us to let the politicians know that this course is unacceptable.

The sequester was borne out of Congress’ failure to reach an agreement on a budget in 2011. The terms were so terrible — drastic, across-the-board cuts impacting programs ranging from child nutrition to cancer research to food inspections — that few thought they would actually be implemented. But the sequester did end up happening — in large part because enough members of Congress see the federal budget as a zero-sum game in which investments in research come only in exchange for cuts to other valuable programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. The result was austerity — which shifts the burden of the economic crisis onto the backs of low- and middle-income workers, students and other vulnerable populations.

Common-sense alternatives to budget cuts —such as eliminating corporate tax exemptions and asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share — remain off the table, despite the fact that huge majorities of voters support these alternatives. For example, 79 percent of voters support closing a loophole involving offshore tax havens that would save $155 billion a year, equal to about two years’ worth of sequester cuts.

And this is just one of many corporate tax breaks.

But without action, these cuts will continue to degrade publicly funded research that has led to countless new therapies and technologies. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding has enabled UC Berkeley researchers to make groundbreaking discoveries involving the polio virus, flu vaccines, malaria treatments, cancer-causing genes and environmental toxins — and the list goes on and on. Under sequestration, the NIH saw its budget cut by $1.71 billion in 2013, which meant 700 fewer grants were funded. Those 700 grants could have helped find cures or treatments for who knows how many diseases, and the research was stopped before it even got started. Even projects that managed to retain their funds have been scaled back, meaning fewer researchers, a smaller staff and outdated equipment, leaving questions that naturally arise over the course of experimentation unexplored.

Negotiations over a new budget have reduced the sequester cuts for the next two years, and this is a glint of good news, given the complete dysfunction and government shutdown that took place three months ago. But we haven’t seen an end to the austerity politics that gave rise to it. And while some funding for science and other critical programs such as Head Start was restored, the budget for the NIH, our nation’s largest science agency, will still be less than it was in seven out of eight years of the Bush administration.

The continued shortchanging of science has long-term implications that policy makers cannot ignore. Study after study shows the positive economic and job creation benefits to federal investments in science research. In 2011, $3.5 billion in NIH grants in California alone created nearly $8 billion in economic growth and about 60,000 jobs. And these same economic benefits hold for other areas of federal investment, such as education from preschool through college, public health and more.

As the union representing postdoctoral researchers at the University of California, United Auto Workers Local 5810 is fighting these cuts. Our members are well aware of the long-term outlook for science. We also know that we are at risk of losing talented individuals across scientific fields. We have gathered thousands of petition signatures, used innovative social media campaigns and recently organized 39 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter opposing sequester cuts to science and other vital programs. We’re keeping a close eye on those who understand the value of scientific research, and we will continue to work with the university, other stakeholders and the public to fend off cuts to — and then increase — funding for scientific research.

We are no longer cutting to the bone, but we are still cutting into muscle; we are still doing significant damage. And we’re doing all this not because our nation has decided that science is no longer important. We’re doing it because Congress is focused on slash-and-burn policies that damage our most successful programs instead of looking to progressive, equitable financial policies that ensure corporations and the wealthiest individuals pay their fair share and our research and social safety net can be restored.

It’s past time for that to change.

Neal Sweeney is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Cruz studying stem cell therapies for eye disease. He is the president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, which represents more than 6,000 postdocs at the University of California.

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