Federal Budget Expert Urges Cancer Researchers to Tell Their Stories

There are two foreseeable opportunities for a breakout in federal funding for cancer research, according to Erik Fatemi, Vice President, Cornerstone Government Affairs.  One, during Congress’ “lame duck” session, which ends December 11, legislators will, presumably, make a decision to pass either a year-long budget or a short-term continuing resolution. Two, Congress will soon reconsider whether to raise budget caps for nondefense spending, including biomedical research.

Either way, Fatemi said, cancer researchers have a good story to tell, and they should tell it.

Erik Fatemi discusses the changing landscape for federal funding of biomedical research during the 2014 AACI Annual Meeting. At the panelist table is Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer, director, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Erik Fatemi discusses the changing landscape for federal funding of biomedical research during the 2014 AACI Annual Meeting. At the panelist table is Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer, director, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Fatemi provided an outlook on National Institutes of Health funding during AACI’s 2014 Annual Meeting, held in Chicago at the end of October. Before joining Cornerstone, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting group with offices in seven other cities, Fatemi served 12 years as a senior staff member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education under Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA).  He also served as the subcommittee’s staff director from 2010 – 2013.

Fatemi urged meeting attendees to invite a member of Congress to their own cancer center, noting that it would make the lawmaker proud to be representing such an important enterprise, and it may give them incentive to fight for NIH funding.  Fatemi recommended that cancer researchers explain what they would love to do with their research, if sufficient funds were available.

“Don’t just say, ‘We need more money,’” Fatemi said. “Say, ‘We’re on the cusp of this amazing breakthrough, and we need your help.’”

Putting NIH in the context of overall government funding, Fatemi explained that “discretionary appropriations,” which include NIH, are divided into 12 annual appropriations bills, the largest of which, the defense appropriation, covers about half of all discretionary spending. NIH is a large component of the Labor, Health and Human Services bill, comprising about one-sixth of it.  However, NIH struggles to compete for funding with other good priorities within the bill, like education. Since its budget was doubled between 1998 and 2003, NIH has lost almost a quarter of its purchasing power, Fatemi noted.

Hopeful that the word is out and that legislators realize there is a serious problem with biomedical research funding in this country, Fatemi said he believes that NIH can succeed in attracting more support, despite the tight fiscal environment.  Growing concerns about the impact of budget cuts on young researchers, innovation, and global competitiveness may set up NIH as an exception to Washington’s budget-trimming ways.

Fatemi noted that the recent Ebola outbreak created a new wrinkle in the bipartisan support for NIH funding, with Democrats and Republicans clashing over the impact of budget cuts on the development of a vaccine. But he said he hoped that controversy would settle down soon.

Emily Smith, AACI Communications Intern