Why Cutting Science Funding Would 'Break' Cancer Research

Siddhartha Mukherjee and others say the budget situation in Washington is “depressing.”

Kris Krug/flickr

As Congress continued its standoff over Obamacare and the budget on Thursday, doctors and scientists on the other side of the country confessed that they’re worried about Washington. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, was among those who spoke against the political shenanigans that might derail medical research in interviews at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific.

“I’m happy to talk about Washington, but I will say, it’s a depressing conversation,” Mukherjee said. “What you cannot do with cancer, or with any scientific project, is you can’t say, ‘Well, you know, we’ve run out of money today, so let’s put it on hold for five years and when the budgets free up and the time happens, we will come back to it.’ That just doesn’t happen. Science is a continuous conversation, and if it breaks, it’s a broken conversation. It’s a peculiarity of this ecosystem that while it produces dividends on the one hand, it is actually very fragile.”

Scott Lippman, the director of the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego, echoed Mukherjee’s concerns. “Trying to get NIH funding is a serious problem – I don’t want to say crisis, but it’s heading that way. I was at a meeting few days ago in Washington … and Kathleen Sebelius spoke. The concern, she said, is that we may lose the talent we have in this country to go to other countries if we don’t do something. We have to push for increased funding, particularly in cancer, which is transformative.”

Like all other federal agencies, the National Institutes of Health was hit by the sequester in the spring, and it will be required to trim $1.55 billion from its budget in this fiscal year.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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