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Rallying for the future of medical research: Q&A with Jon Retzlaff

shutterstock_44616835Less than a month from now, science advocates hope to bring thousands of people together on the Carnegie Library Grounds at Mt. Vernon Square in Washington, DC,  to stand together in the Rally for Medical Research. The move is, in large part, a response to the latest development in the US budget battle, in which the government has implemented massive cuts, known as sequestration, to most federal programs starting 1 March. The sequestration’s $1.6 billion cut to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) translates to over 5 % spending cut to federally-funded medical research. These cuts come at a time when the NIH’s budget has been steadily declining for the past ten years.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) is one of nearly 100 partnering organizations behind the 8 April rally. Jon Retzlaff, a managing director for Science Policy and Regulatory Affairs at AACR who is also involved in coordinating and organizing the rally, told Nature Medicine how AACR conceived the idea for the rally and how it plans to call on our nation’s policymakers to make life-saving medical research funding a national priority:

How did the idea for a rally come about?

We have an annual meeting in Washington, DC, between April 6 and 10, where around 18,000 people come to town for this meeting. Our chief executive officer, Margaret Foti, proposed that because we are at a crisis moment in regards to the medical research, specifically the funding for the NIH, we need to do something at the annual meeting to make the NIH a national priority and generate awareness among the general public to take action to inform the members of Congress that there are key areas of government that need to be supported and the NIH is one of them.

How many people are they expecting to come?

Nearly 100 partnering organization have already signed up. The American Heart Association is coming to the rally on behalf of the NIH and it’s going to be a major event. When we just started, we hoped for 10,000 people. Now I’m optimistic that we underestimated the numbers.

What makes this rally different and unique from rallies organized in the past?

This is a unique opportunity [and] an effort of the entire community to come together, which I think is really unprecedented, with thousands of people gathering, we are going to get noticed in a way that I don’t think we’ve gotten noticed. The other unique opportunity here is [that] we are turning this into a nationwide activity. [For something to happen],  it’s going to require all the universities, the medical centers and cancer centers throughout the entire US to be doing something at their respective institutions at the same time on the same day so that it will be heard throughout the entire country.

What will the rally aim to do if the sequester is resolved before the rally takes place?

This is a long-term process to generate support in congress to make sure that the NIH is a national priority. I can tell you it’s not going to be resolved in the next three weeks. Making the NIH a national priority will require the members of congress to step up and say this is an area like we had 10-15 years ago with John Porter [a former congressman  and chair of the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services] in the House and Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin, who together doubled NIH’s budget over a five year period and said that the NIH needs to be one of the nation’s priorities.

What do these cuts mean for the National Institutes of Health and its 27 research institutes and centers?

When you look at the NIH’s ability to fund grants, they are down by 20% in terms of overall loss because of inflation since 2003. Now on top of that, you put a 5% cut because of the sequester, [which] actually translates to 9% [over the remaining part of the fiscal year] because there are only seven months left of the fiscal year [and thus these cuts must be achieved over only seven months instead of twelve]. The NIH will only be able to fund half the grants it funded last year and it would absolutely devastate the community. At the rally, we would applaud any efforts that would take away some of those sequester cuts.

How will these cuts affect young scientists?

We are concerned about the future of biomedical research and the pipeline of young investigators. It’s demoralizing for a lot of these young researchers .The cuts are devastating when you talk about the success rate, their chance of getting funded is 14%, [so] 86% of the grants [are] declined, even though a lot of them are exceptional and would get funded if we had the money required to advance science. Why stay in this field when you have such a small chance of getting funded and being successful? It’s a crisis situation.

Image: Shutterstock

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