Research into cancer, Alzheimer's disease and influenza may lose crucial funding even as scientists say they are on the cusp of breakthroughs.
Deep federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, could lead to diminished funding for medical and scientific research, making some scientists question whether they should stay in the United States.
If the cuts continue, scientists said, the United States could see promising graduate students going to countries investing heavily in scientific research.
With the human genome sequenced and fast computers at their fingertips, scientists say that research is moving more quickly than ever before. Which means the reduction in federal funding comes at a particularly bad time.
"It is a paradoxical thing that we are both at a time of remarkable and almost unprecedented scientific opportunity, and we're also at a time in the United States of unprecedented threats to the momentum of scientific progress," said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Sequestration, which went into effect March 1 after Congress failed to reach a budget compromise, cuts $85 billion across government departments, agencies and programs.
The NIH, which will lose $1.6 billion of its $30 billion budget through the sequester, is the world's largest supporter of biomedical research, funding $2 billion in programs at the University of California system alone.
The scientists' concerns come as labor organizes rallies across the country against the sequestration. Government employees gathered last week outside the San Diego Naval Base to speak out against cuts that will lead to furloughs.
There's an economic incentive for investing in biomedical research, Collins said. NIH-funded discoveries contribute to the nation's booming biomedical industry, a sector that exports $90 billion a year in goods and services annually and employs a million citizens.
The government's $4 billion investment in the Human Genome Project, for example, helped create $796 billion in economic growth from 2000 to 2010, the NIH estimated.
Schools such as those in the UC system already are feeling the pinch. Many federal government grants started to slow a few months ago when administrators realized they might be facing budget cuts, said Gary Falle, the UC system's associate vice president for federal government relations.
Still, some argue that the cuts to the NIH will make the agency look more closely at how it spends its money, making it more efficient.
In a commentary on a conservative Heritage Foundation blog, students T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd pointed out that the NIH funds projects including research into how golfers perform better when they use their imagination and a study showing male fruit flies are more attracted to younger fruit flies than to older ones.