Budget Cuts, Sequester, Shutdown. When Will the Damage End?

October 1, 2013

By Ross A. Frommer

Ross A. Frommer, vice president for government and community affairs and associate dean.

Sequestration. A year ago, not many people outside the world of lawmakers, budget analysts, and a few lobbyists would have thought much about the word, certainly not in the context of the effect it could have on biomedical research. To most, I gather, it meant being cut off from the outside world while serving jury duty. Today, however, sequestration, and what it means for the federal budget and the overall U.S. economy, is very much on the minds of all those who rely on federal support, including individuals here at CUMC where National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds are critical to our research efforts and other activities. Like jury sequestration, it is causing a tremendous amount of disruption for those affected by it.

President Barack Obama, as he was required to do by law, signed the sequestration order just before midnight on March 1, 2013. The immediate effect was a 5.1 percent cut to all domestic discretionary spending, including biomedical research funded by the NIH.

At Columbia, sequestration could lead to an estimated $19 million reduction in NIH funding at the medical center in 2013, probably more in 2014. What could this mean? It means it is now even harder to win an NIH grant, and the grants are going to be smaller. It means fewer postdoc positions will be created and fewer staff hired. But numbers alone do not convey the full impact of the cuts on science, discovery, and health. NIH supports research conducted every day at CUMC, research that could lead to breakthroughs that will help us better understand, prevent, treat, and even cure disease. Sequestration doesn’t just reduce NIH funding by 5.1 percent; it reduces hope by much more than 5.1 percent.

For the past year, faculty and staff throughout CUMC have been working hard to repeal sequestration, making very clear the devastating and long-lasting effects it will have on research and the economy. In December 2012, three members of the New York Congressional delegation held a press conference at CUMC to decry sequestration and highlight the harmful effect it will have on research. In April, 20 CUMC faculty, staff, and students traveled to Washington to join thousands of advocates from across the country at the Rally for Medical Research as they made their voices heard in support of medical research. Lee Goldman, MD, dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at CUMC and executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences at Columbia, has also spoken personally to many members of Congress to make sure they understand the issue. Hundreds of CUMC faculty, staff, and students have contacted their members of Congress and many have gone to Washington to lobby them and their staffs personally. In September, Associate Professor Gloria Su and Assistant Professor Clarissa Waites participated in the Rally for Medical Research lobby day.

How did sequestration come about? Well, the first thing to understand is that it was never intended to actually go into effect. It was designed to be a threat, a sword of Damocles if you will, hanging over the heads of both Republicans and Democrats to force them to negotiate a budget deal.

Dean Lee Goldman with Rep. Eric Cantor
Dr. Lee Goldman, dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine and executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences met with Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia to discuss the impact of cuts to NIH funding on biomedical research.

Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress was tasked with agreeing on at least $1.2 trillion in additional spending cuts over 10 years. If Congress could not agree on budget cuts, which they did not, the president was required to cut spending across the board—hence the sequester.

For most government programs, this meant a roughly 8.2 percent cut for nondefense programs and a 9.4 percent cut for defense programs. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 softened the blow for 2013 only, reducing these numbers to 5.1 percent for nondefense and 7.3 percent for defense this year. For the NIH, it meant a reduction in spending of roughly $1.6 billion. NIH Director Francis Collins gave each institute and center director discretion on how to implement the cuts. Some are lowering pay lines; others are reducing each grant by a small, but noticeable amount.  On average, support for extramural research is being reduced by roughly 5.7 percent. Unless further action is taken, additional sequestration cuts will greet us in 2014.

Members of our community are speaking up to make their voices heard and educate the public on the consequences of NIH cuts. But despite these efforts and those of advocates nationwide, sequestration will remain in effect until Congress repeals it.

There is no doubt it is hurting research. Battles over the debt limit, the Affordable Care Act, and the  government shutdown only complicate things. Unfortunately, it seems, at least for the foreseeable future, sequestration, and all its awful consequences, is the new normal.

Ross A. Frommer is the vice president for government and community affairs and associate dean at Columbia University Medical Center.

Learn more about the sequester:

Francis Collins, NIH Director, sings the Sequester Blues to communicate the dire consequences of the sequester on biomedical research

The American Association for the Advancement of Science on the consequences of cuts to NIH funding