Forty years after President Richard Nixon launched the "war on cancer,'' the nation may be on the verge of beating a regrettable retreat, one it can ill afford from either a health or economic standpoint.

Minnesota's congressional delegation, whose home state includes world-class medical research centers and providers, needs to wield its growing clout to ensure that scientific research isn't gutted in a shortsighted rush to reduce the nation's $14 trillion-plus deficit.

Yes, expenditures need to be reined in. But federal programs need to be weighed carefully, with some safeguarded more than others from the budget axe the congressional deficit "supercommittee" will swing with the release of its historic report 17 days from now.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its National Cancer Institute must be protected.

Across-the-board cuts or an approach too weighted toward spending cuts make the dangerous assumption that everything to be chopped is waste.

Lost in this simplistic view is that NIH research produces lifesaving knowledge and treatments while also generating high-paying jobs -- more than 10,000 of them in Minnesota and more than half a million nationally.

The University of Minnesota is slated to bring in more than $305 million this year in NIH grants.

The groundbreaking work done by Dr. Doug Yee and researchers at the U's Masonic Cancer Center isn't waste or a handout. Neither is the cutting-edge research done in Rochester by Dr. Robert Diasio and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

The same holds true for the important work done elsewhere in Minnesota. A $2 million annual National Cancer Institute grant supports about 50 staffers at a consortium of metro hospitals and clinics.

Their job: steering patients with cancer into clinical trials offering advanced treatments.

Deep cuts to federal research funding could mean that "we would have to turn patients away from treatments,'' said Ann Deshler, executive director of research at the Park Nicollet Institute, which is the grant's fiscal agent.

Deshler is also concerned about a diminished number of clinical trials here and elsewhere.

"There's probably not a realization of how much research goes on in the community,'' she said. "It's not just the U or Mayo.''

The supercommittee, which consists of six Republicans and six Democrats, is aiming for $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade. Failure to reach an agreement triggers $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts.

That translates into a $600 billion reduction in domestic discretionary spending -- the budget category that includes scientific research -- over nine years.

That's about an 8 to 9 percent reduction, said Washington, D.C.-based budget expert Stan Collender, though it's unclear if the cut is the same for every agency or line item.

To put that in perspective, a report earlier this year from the Association of American Cancer Institutes estimated that a 0.8 percent cut in the NIH's $33 billion annual budget would result in about 4,000 jobs lost nationally.

The supercommittee needs to reach an agreement and thoughtfully bring revenue in line with spending.

Now is not the time to put medical progress at risk or jeopardize America's global research leadership -- especially when China and other nations are investing heavily to catch up.

"This is about whether you're going to use yesterday's therapy and medicine for tomorrow's medical problems,'' said Mayo's Diasio. "And whether you're going to stay in the past or move to the future."