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Clinic concerned about possible NIH cuts

Mayo Clinic officials warn that a $2.8 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health budget scheduled to take effect in January would hurt the clinic's research efforts and delay work on potentially life-saving discoveries.

"This would have a negative effect across the board on the ability of investigators to complete their research projects and get it available for patient care," said Stephen Riederer, Mayo Clinic's chair of research finance and professor of radiology.

The looming cuts are part of sequestration — a package of across-the-board reductions in federal programs that will take effect if Congress is unable to agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan. Sequestration imposes $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years, $110 billion of which would take effect in the first year. While a lot of attention has been focused on the impact the cuts could have on defense programs, there has been little discussion about what it would mean for medical research institutions.

"This is the single largest share or element of research support for Mayo, and we depend very, very heavily on this, " Riederer said.

More than 41 percent of Mayo Clinic's research funding comes from National Institutes of Health grants. The money helps support more than 3,200 Mayo Clinic jobs and funds research in a number of areas, including cancer, diabetes and cardiology.


One of the grant-funded projects is focused on finding a cure and early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. Other grant dollars flow to the Clinical Translation Center, which makes sure research results are put to use in a clinical setting.

Mayo Clinic and 18 other medical research institutions sent a letter in July to Congress urging that it to preserve NIH grant funding. Some research institutions, such as the the Hormel Institute  in Austin, are already focused on finding new sources of funding rather than relying on these federal grants. Last year, the institute received nearly $3 million in NIH grants.

"Because of continued threats that government will further reduce NIH grants, our goal for The Hormel Institute is to establish a multi-faceted support plan beyond government sources, such as research endowments given through individuals and corporations," the institute's executive director, Dr. Zigang Dong, said in a written statement.

He said the Hormel Institute also is thinking globally, looking to build partnerships with groups throughout the world to fund research.

Political options

First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz voted for sequestration as part of an overall deal to raise the nation's debt limit. He said the only reason he cast a "yes" vote was because not raising the debt ceiling would have been a catastrophe. Still, he would rather see a deficit-cutting approach that got rid of programs that don't work and protect investments that make sense, like NIH grants.

Those grants "are a growth engine, and to throw it away as you would a redundant jet engine that wasn't needed, wasn't requested — that is not apples to apples, that is just bad governance," he said.

Walz said the grants should be off the table for cuts because they generate a return on investment of more than 2-to-1. But if Congress doesn't come up with an alternative deficit reduction plan, he believes sequestration should be allowed to take effect.


Walz's Republican rival, Allen Quist, agrees that sequestration is not the best way to deal with the nation's deficit.

"I believe we have to start reducing spending, but the way to do that is to put everything on the table and then look at priorities. And so an indiscriminate, arbitrary approach to cutting spending, I think, is unwise, counterproductive," he said.

Quist said funding for health care, including the medical research grants, rates high on his priority list. Even so, he doesn't rule out possible cuts to these grants in the future.

"The way I look at it is that everything needs to be on the table," he said. "But at the same time, anything related to public health is a very, very high priority."

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