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Sequestration Could Bring Huge Cuts to La Jolla's Research, Biotech Sectors

Federal agencies will have fewer funds beginning Friday if Republicans and Democrats can’t avoid the sequester deadline.

The sequestration talks may be taking place 2,700 miles away, but the results could be felt right here in La Jolla, Del Mar and the greater San Diego area. Federal agencies, military operations, defense industry contractors and researchers may all feel the cuts.

Dr. Kerri A. Mowen, assistant professor with the chemical physiology department at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, said the sequestration could halt research.

"My lab studies the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis, and our work, like most biomedical researchers, is primarily supported by the federal government through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)," Mowen said. "If the sequestration is enacted, our research budget stands to be cut by tens of thousands of dollars. We will have to shelve promising research projects after investing years of research, which will be a huge blow to our research momentum."

“Research can't just be turned on and off,” said Jimmy Jackson, vice president of public policy for BIOCOM, a local trade association for the life science industry.

Jackson said the reductions could cause venture capitalists, who only recently returned to investing in medical research, to take their money elsewhere if the FDA is forced back into its old inefficiencies.

Dr. Kristiina Vuori, president and interim CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, said Sanford-Burnham began planning for possible cuts about one year ago, so none of the organization's 1,200 employees—all but 200 in San Diego—will lose their jobs this year. However, funding reductions would limit the institute's ability to grow in the future, she said.

“I think all organizations like us will have to adjust to the federal government no longer being the biggest provider of medical research funding,” Vuori said. “It's the patients who will suffer.”

Dr. Geoff Wahl with the Salk Institute in La Jolla said cuts would be devastating to cancer research.

“The Salk Institute has already generated the intellectual property to produce 33 companies in the San Diego area and 509 U.S. and foreign patents related to cancer—most of this has come from National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute funding. A 9 percent decrease, which is what is being talked about in the sequester, is going to have a dramatic impact because it is the kind of adventuresome research that has the lowest probability of being funded and the sequester will prevent that kind of adventuresome research from being done,” Wahl said at a press conference last week.

Couny Supervisor Dave Roberts, whose district includes Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, said that sequestration presents a serious threat to the economy of San Diego County.

“Sequestration presents a serious threat to jobs and our economy. Across-the-board cuts to federal programs would hurt families across San Diego County,” Roberts said. “This is especially bad news as the nation is trying to climb out of the recession. It couldn’t come at a worse time.”

San Diego City Council President Pro Tem Sherri Lightner, a former engineer with a defense industry firm in San Diego and representative of District 1, said the city is already feeling the effects that sequestration will have on the local economy.

"Just today, my office received notice from General Dynamics NASSCO that it will have to lay off as much as 40 percent of its production workforce at the end of April because of the uncertainty caused by sequestration," she said. "This is only the beginning, and the effects of sequestration could be absolutely devastating to the San Diego economy. This is simply unacceptable. We need our leaders in Washington, D.C. to lead and come up with a common sense compromise that bolsters our military and our economy.”

Congressman Scott Peters (D-San Diego) spoke out on the House floor on Feb. 15, "San Diego is the largest metropolitan area for military personnel and base operations. My district is home to seven military bases and sequestration will have a broad and devastating effect on our military families and economy. In total, defense spending is responsible for 25 percent of San Diego’s GDP. This means that one out of every four dollars generated in San Diego is achieved as a result of defense spending. The proposed cuts to the defense budget will cost San Diego more than 30,000 defense related jobs."

San Diego County has almost 70,000 federal employees and retirees, according to Eye on Washington, and their fate could include furloughs or worse. Media reports include warnings on delays in air travel and tax refunds. Civilians employed by the Department of Defense face the possibility of furloughs.

“The possibility exists for a 22-day furlough of Federal employees,” said Brian O’Rourke, spokesman for Navy Region Southwest.

The San Diego Military Advisor Council estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 ship repair jobs will be lost due to fewer surface ship availabilities, a loss of $219 million to the local economy.

The Obama administration released on Sunday a report for each state detailing the impacts of the sequester’s budget cuts, and Republicans have accused the president of using scare tactics for political gain.

The seven-page report for California paints a grim picture for education, environmental protections, the military, law enforcement, child care, public health and government services. The report is attached to this article in the PDF section.

The nation has been through this drill before. The sequester was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2013, if lawmakers weren’t able to reduce the budget deficit. That deadline came and went, but they were able to agree on postponing the sequester for two months. That time is running out.

—City News Service contributed to this report.

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