Minnesota's congressional delegation must more prominently wield its clout to prevent harmful cuts to medical research funding -- an economic engine vital to the state and the nation.

Major federal budget decisions aren't likely until after this fall's election. But disturbing recent moves in Washington, D.C., suggest that policymakers are willing to potentially delay medical advances and risk the country's leadership position in global research by inadequately funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other critical initiatives.

The NIH is a broad umbrella of federal research organizations. It includes the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, among others. Already, the state's world-class medical centers -- Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota -- have joined with 17 other leading U.S. medical centers to sound the alarm about NIH funding and about lower salary caps for researchers.

With almost 10,000 jobs in the state linked to NIH funding, Minnesota lawmakers ought to heed these respected medical centers' concerns and seek solutions. The health of NIH funding directly impacts the nation's physical health, as well.

"Between 1965 and 1992, 15 of the 21 top-grossing drugs were developed in part on discoveries enabled by federal research," according to United for Medical Research, a consortium of medical centers and industry. Among those drugs: anti-AIDS treatments, depression medication and medication used in heart surgery. More recent NIH-funded research led to five of the top 20 best-selling U.S. drugs in 2010.

Draft recommendations developed this summer by a key U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee call for flat NIH funding next year -- $30.6 billion -- and do not fix the salary cap issue, which essentially shifts researcher salary costs back onto medical institutions. In an incredibly shortsighted move, the Republican-dominated subcommittee also seeks to de-fund the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which funded research in Minnesota and elsewhere to determine how to control medical costs without sacrificing quality.

U.S. Senate appropriators called for a very slight increase in NIH funding, and they do not target the AHRQ. But the increase for NIH is far from ideal, given how much its funding has eroded over the past decade when inflation is factored in.

Medical research funding faces an even greater threat this fall as Congress wrestles with the automatic domestic spending cuts triggered by the last year's debt ceiling deal and the failure of the congressional "supercommittee" to reach a broader agreement on deficit reduction.

In the agricultural Midwest, there's a term for what policymakers are mulling for medical research. It's called "eating your seed corn" -- a move that brings short-term gain while jeopardizing the future. And while it's never good policy, a slackened commitment to research could not have worse timing.

China, Singapore, Great Britain and others are bolstering their financial commitment to life-science research, hoping to wrest away high-tech industries and high-paying jobs. The United States must maintain its lead amid fierce new competition. It also needs the half-million good-paying jobs linked to NIH funding.

Those funding recommendations represent more than a dollar figure. They reflect a nation's priorities. Difficult spending decisions must be made, but thoughtless cuts could wind up "relegating us to a different place," said University of Minnesota Medical School Dean Dr. Aaron Friedman. "Is that what we want to have happen?"


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