Even in an era of intense partisanship, both parties in Congress agree that funding the innovative and lifesaving research at the National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research agency in the world, is a good idea. But like a lot of good ideas in Washington these days, that doesn’t mean it’s happening. Despite bipartisan pledges of support, 2013 has been one of the hardest years for medical research in decades. As a result of sequestration, the National Institutes of Health’s fiscal 2013 budget fell by $1.71 billion, or 5.5 percent, compared with fiscal 2012. Those cuts were exacerbated in October by the government shutdown, which stalled research, grant approval, and patient care. But there is a slight silver lining.
That stalling of patient care became emblematic of the destructive potential of the government shutdown when it was revealed that 200 cancer patients, including 30 children, were denied admittance to the NIH Clinical Center—a place that is often the last hope for patients who have exhausted every other option. The news intensified the ire of the public toward Congress and created a greater appreciation for the NIH’s work, a boost in notoriety through a means NIH Director Francis Collins would gladly have done without.
“If there was a tiny silver lining in the shut down it was that NIH was seen as one of the government agencies harmed that people were most troubled by. No matter what you think politically, the idea that a kid with a bad disease is being turned away from a research trial at the clinical center is not something you wanna look at and say ‘well, it doesn’t matter,’” said Collins. “So we got a bit of a bump there in visibility. But I don’t advocate that it was worth it.”