Over the past several decades, investment through the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has become an essential source of support for academic and clinical cancer research. The dividends paid by this investment have been discoveries that have reduced suffering and mortality due to cancer. For cancer patients and survivors, it is money well spent.
The February issue of ONI highlighted the six most notable cancer advances of 2006 from the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) second annual "Clinical Cancer Advances" report. Much of our progress in developing effective cancer strategies for treatment, prevention, and screening, such as those in ASCO's report, have been fueled by federally funded biomedical research. In the report, ASCO urged increased federal funding for cancer research in 2007.
However, as with all line items in the federal budget, NIH funding is subject to the whims of the current political climate. Unfortunately, for the first time since the 1971 National Cancer Act was signed, the Bush administration is proposing substantial spending cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for FY2008, which will ultimately reduce NCI funding for cancer research.
To put the current downtrend into perspective, national defense spending has escalated to approximately $1,600 per capita, whereas federal spending for biomedical research currently amounts to about $97 per capita.
Moreover, according to ASCO, cooperative cancer groups nationwide might have to close or delay as many as 95 trials this year, nearly half of the trials the groups conduct annually. Allen Lichter, MD, executive vice president of ASCO, commented that the Bush administration cuts have "a real cost in human life. At a time when we are finally making progress, they are pulling the rug out."
Although it is too soon to quantify in clinical and human terms what the impending budget cuts mean, it is important to note the historical significance and possible long-term trend that may develop. This economic downturn also threatens to erode the pool of investigators skilled in clinical research.
NIH training grants are a major source of financial support for clinical fellows during their research experience. Budgetary limitations adversely affect the training climate. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find money for investigators to fund their research, younger researchers might become frustrated and chose alternate career paths. Down the road, with a shrinking pool of the best and brightest, the pipeline of new clinical discoveries could also shrink.