President Barack Obama used his fifth State of the Union address last night to repeat his annual call to increase basic research funding—a plea with added significance this year, as he and Congressional leaders struggle to avoid across-the-board spending cuts that would shrink NIH among other agencies.

Obama and Congress at deadline remain deadlocked on how to cut at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, as promised under the 2011 Budget Control Act. The fiscal-cliff accord they reached around the New Year’s holiday postponed the deadline for action to March 1—after which, according to the budget act, all non-defense federal agencies must cut their spending by a flat 5.1% for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. We’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs,” Obama said. “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. We need to make those investments.”

Obama justified research spending by citing the estimate of economic impact of the Human Genome Project (HGP) trumpeted recently by NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. According to a Battelle Technology Partnership Practice report commissioned by Life Technologies Foundation, HGP spending between 1990 and 2003 amounted to $3.8 billion, but generated an economic impact of $796 billion—a $141-to-1 return.

“If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas,” Obama contended.

Delivering the Republican rebuttal address, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) emphasized the need to contain federal spending given trillion-dollar deficits of recent years: “We won’t be able to sustain a vibrant middle class unless we solve our debt problem. Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn’t being invested to create jobs. And the uncertainty created by the debt is one reason why many businesses aren’t hiring.”

In invoking the U.S. reaching the moon ahead of the old Soviet Union, Obama repeated a theme he sounded last year, when he was campaigning for his second term. But in keeping with his speech’s focus on the domestic economy, the president also linked research spending to employment—an argument also cited by advocates of bigger NIH budgets.

“These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness, they’d devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs,” the president said.

Last week, United for Medical Research (UMR) issued an analysis warning that 20,500 jobs and $3 billion in economic output would be lost within the life sciences sector unless Congress can stave off the automatic cuts, known in Washington as sequestration.

According to UMR, NIH funding generated the greatest number of jobs last year in California (59,363), Massachusetts (34,031), New York (32,249), Texas (25,408) and Pennsylvania (23,709). Under sequestration, the group argues, the number of jobs lost could total more than 3,000 jobs in California and more than 1,000 jobs each in the other four states.

“We cannot allow budget cuts, such as those looming from the sequester, to undermine the biomedical research enterprise, causing the loss of jobs and prosperity, as well as setting us back at a time when we are on the cusp of exciting new advances in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s and many other diseases,” UMR President Carrie Wolinetz, Ph.D., said in a statement.

The link between research spending and jobs has also been advanced by another group advocating more basic research spending. In a poll released last month, Research!America found 83% of respondents agreeing that such spending “has a role in creating jobs and fueling the economy,” with 85% expressing concern about the near-flat NIH budgets of recent years, and their impact on science and technology, and only 41% saying they believed the U.S. would remain the world’s sci-tech leader in 2020.

“The president’s emphasis on STEM and medical research reflects the sentiments of large majorities of the American public and should not only register bipartisan applause lines but translate into the elimination of sequestration and the launch of a new Moon Shot befitting the global R&D leadership of our nation,” Research!America president and CEO Mary Woolley said this morning in a statement.

Also praising Obama’s remarks this morning was a longtime advocate for greater federal research spending, the Federation of America Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

“Once again we sincerely appreciate the President’s emphasis on scientific innovation and his willingness to make funding for research a national priority. We should not sacrifice our commitment to the research that has dramatically improved the quality of life for Americans and people around the world,” FASEB president Judith S. Bond, Ph.D., said in a statement.

Obama also challenged Congress to “redesign” the nation’s high schools by orienting them more toward training students for STEM jobs: “We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Rubio appeared to agree with Obama, without specifically invoking biomedical research: “Helping the middle class grow will also require an education system that gives people the skills today’s jobs entail and the knowledge that tomorrow’s world will require. We need to incentivize local school districts to offer more advanced placement courses and more vocational and career training.” 

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