Federal funding for cancer research: The good, the bad and the ugly

Federal funding for cancer research: The good, the bad and the ugly

After a tumultuous year of debates and shutdowns, Congress has passed legislation that will fund cancer research and education–but does the bill do enough? An omnibus appropriations bill that will fund federal agencies and programs for the remainder of this fiscal year recently passed the House and Senate. Many news accounts talked about the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a “winner” in this particular spending deal, with an increase of $1 billion in funding. In fact, funding for health research–including cancer research–is falling behind.

Let’s start with the good news: NIH will receive an additional $1 billion in this fiscal year, a 3.5% increase from the previous year. Likewise, funding for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) will rise by $12 million. Some federal programs that fund cancer research, such as the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, saw substantial increases in funding.

The bad news is that these increases don’t offset years of uncertainty, budget cuts and too-small appropriations. Although funding is rising for medical research and education programs, most are still below pre-sequester funding levels from fiscal year 2012. Federal funding for cancer research has been flat for more than a decade, and when adjusted for inflation, it is actually lower than it was before the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003.

The ugly? Years of irregular appropriations have seriously hampered cancer research. Projects that could yield amazing new breakthroughs just aren’t getting off the ground, largely because there isn’t enough funding. In addition, the uncertainty about how much money Congress will appropriate for cancer research–and when in the world they will pass a funding bill–has made federal agencies extremely cautious about giving out the money they do have. On the other side, biomedical research universities are also shy about starting new research projects and hiring new staff due to federal budget uncertainty. In fact, 70% of universities report delaying new projects and 35% report cancelling them all together. While the current funding bill is a step in the right direction, the road to this deal included a year of substantial funding cuts and a government shutdown.

We are happy to see small improvements in funding for cancer research, but this isn’t the time to rest on our laurels. Most advocates expect next year’s budget battle to be even harder. We will need to organize and fight so that we don’t lose more ground in the next appropriations cycle.

How can you help? As a cancer survivor, your voice carries tremendous weight with your elected officials. Get involved with patient advocacy organizations, like the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. We tell our community when Congress is considering appropriations and give you easy tools to share your cancer journey and explain the importance of funding cancer research. We also bring survivors to Capitol Hill throughout the year, where they can meet face-to-face with policymakers.

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