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Pitt experts say federal research cutbacks contribute to waste

| Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The federal government could waste millions of research dollars on such things as preventing terror attacks and disease outbreaks because of recent funding cuts, experts said ahead of a national conference at the University of Pittsburgh this week.

Pitt lost about $1.2 million and cut 10 researchers from its emergency preparedness programs because of federal cutbacks, said Margaret A. Potter, professor of health policy and management. Her work is part of a national effort since 1999 to bolster emergency preparedness, but that first generation of research will be hard to implement if the federal government continues cutting such programs, experts said.

About $900 million was cut from disaster preparedness funding in fiscal 2011, some of that in research, according to a memo from Columbia University researchers.

“I think it's terrible. I think it's cutting in one of the areas where we can least afford cuts,” said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, which is not affiliated with any of Pitt's programs.

Federal disaster preparedness research programs at Pitt get about $400,000 in direct federal funding plus a share of another $2 million in federal funds designated for its Models of Infectious Disease Agents Study (MIDAS) National Center of Excellence. The center is hosting a conference that began Monday and continues through Wednesday for researchers and policymakers to consider the future of research for public health systems' emergency planning.

The funding cuts have been part of a more widespread effort from Congress to cut deficit spending, experts said.

Ali S. Khan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed Monday that research for hard data is key to emergency preparedness. The agency cut its annual preparedness spending from $1 billion to $600 million. Some of the money reshaped national and local programs to fight anthrax and flu outbreaks and boost vaccinations, he told about 65 people at the conference's opening session at the University Club in Oakland.

“(Now) it's not just turning research into practical improvements, it's (about how) to continue to sustain the capacity we have at the state and local governments and at the CDC to be prepared for these things,” Khan, director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, said later.

Potter said her research program, less than half finished, is charting emergency preparedness laws in every state and the federal government to find out which governments are maximizing capabilities.

Federal money and university research also support a wide range of other local programs that county-based agencies don't have the resources to maintain, said Wes Hill, chairman of Western Pennsylvania's joint terrorism task force and director of Beaver County Emergency Services.

“The timing of (the conference) is quite deliberate. It's a time when the federal government is rethinking its priorities,” Potter said. “To pretend you can invest in preparedness for eight years or 10 years and then you don't have to continue investing in it any more is a fallacy.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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