News & Views item - April 2011


While Australian Rallies Against $400 million Prospective Cuts to Medical Research Proceed, US 2011 Spending Deal Spares NIH Major Cuts. (April 13, 2011)

Yesterday thousands of researchers attended rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide protesting against rumoured planned federal budgetary cuts of $400 million to Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) over the next three to four years. Rallies are scheduled for Perth, Brisbane and Darwin later this week.


Doug Hilton, the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research where the campaign "Discover Needs Dollars" originated told Nature: "The turnout was phenomenal," and noted, "about 1,000 were from patient groups and the general public that's what was really inspiring."


According to Professor Hilton the rumour is based on leaked Cabinet-level conversations, and if accurate, would constitute a cut of around 14-19% to NHMRC budget, which last year received about $715 million.


Paul Gleeson, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne says: "The cuts would effectively mean a reduction in the success rate of new grants, from around 21% to 10% or lower." Professor Hilton adds the chopping of NHMRC funding is just not the place for savings: "NHMRC funding simply covers the direct costs of doing experiments; I think the argument that there is fat in that part of the sector is a complete misreading of the situation by the federal government."


In US President Obama's words: "Cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation, that's like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing the engine. It's not a good idea. There may be some things you need to get rid of, but you've got to keep the engine."


Physicist Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies was blunt: "The concern I have is the apparent lack of understanding of how research is done you can't just turn research on and off," and pointed out the funding cuts will mean researchers losing their jobs, and may become permanently lost to Australian research.


"There's no point slashing budgets and then looking at the future from the point of crisis let's keep things stable and plan properly," Professor Hilton pleads. "We're trying to engage productively with government, but if they are unreceptive to meeting then we will just ramp up the pressure."


Meanwhile ScienceInsider reports: "Details released today indicate that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive $30.7 billion, or $260 million below the 2010 level. The 0.8% cut includes $210 million spread across all 27 NIH institutes and centers and the director's office, and $50 million from a buildings account. (Adding a 0.2% across-the-board cut in all non-defense agencies, the total cut will be about $300 million, says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges.) By contrast, an earlier House bill, H.R. 1, would have slashed NIH's budget by $1.6 billion to $29.5 billion."


In Dr Moore's view: "...the final outcome for NIH has to be viewed as relatively good news. Certainly people will be disappointed research is being cut, but in the current budget climate it could have been a lot worse."


Nevertheless, there are the dramas of determining the US federal budget for 2012 to come, and Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology notes that many legislators are urging additional cuts in the 2012 budgets now before the US Congress -- "It will be short-term relief," she says about the 2011 deal.