Sequester squeezes scientists

NIH funding
Photo by Yale Daily News.

Six months after the sequester slashed the budgets of national science organizations, Yale’s scientists say they are feeling a tangible impact.

Two of the nation’s largest scientific funding organizations, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, cut their budgets by 5 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, in response to the federal sequester in March. Both organizations have announced that they will award fewer new grants in the coming year, and the NIH, which provides funding in annual increments, will skim a percentage off the top of each of its payments.

The decrease in funding has left many Yale faculty — especially those in the medical school who earn the majority of their salary from outside grants — wondering how they will continue to run their labs.

“We don’t fully know the effect yet, but it seems like it’s harder to get grant applications accepted, and grant approvals are being reduced in what they award,” Provost Benjamin Polak said. “The good news is that we have a very high quality medical school. We’re small but very high quality, so those cuts don’t seem to have hit us as badly as other places.”

The sequester cuts also come amid a larger trend of decreasing government government commitment to scientific research. Researchers say tight budgets are discouraging the next generation of scientists and endangering the future of American innovation.

 

A QUESTION OF FUNDING

The sequester put the lab of professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Paul Forscher in an “extremely vulnerable situation,” when, for the first time in 23 years, a grant was not funded in the first round. The funding gap forced Forscher to seek University “bridge funding” to support his lab while the grant went in for a second round review.

Yale has allocated a few hundred thousand dollars for bridge support each year, with average grants of about $50,000, said Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin, adding that the University has been able to meet about half of recent faculty requests in Yale College. Without the bridge support, Forscher said he would have had to let members of his lab go.

“I’m probably one of the lucky ones, but it was a very difficult period, and it caused a lot of pressure and stress on personnel in my lab,” Forscher said. “If I hadn’t got the money I would have had to let the core of my research lab go. This is happening all over the country to well-established labs.”

The effects of the sequester are being felt by some of Yale’s most senior faculty, like professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Donald Engelman GRD ’67, who has been on faculty since 1970. He received a 9 percent cut to grant support from the NIH this year, which means he will be unable to replace a postdoctoral fellow who left to take a faculty position.

While the sequester has not yet had a direct impact on the work of School of Medicine professor of pathology and genetics Gerald Shadel, he said it has prevented him from pursuing a more aggressive research program.

“Before, I would hire a postdoc even if they didn’t have a fellowship, and say I’ll get the grant eventually,” Shadel said. “But I’m much less inclined to take that risk because of the sequester because the future is so tenuous. I’ve become much more conservative as a result.”

For professor of psychology Gregory McCarthy, the sequester meant a “relatively mild cut” to his NIH grant support, which he is trying to keep in context.

“In this funding climate, I am fortunate to have grant funding at all, and so I am taking this cut in stride,” McCarthy said.

Years of budget surplus tend to balance out deficit years, said professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Michael Koelle. While he said he is not terribly worried about the anticipated 5 percent cut this year to his lab, it is the long term trends and future outlook of science funding in the country that have Koelle and his colleagues preoccupied.

 

‘A SLAP IN THE FACE’

The sequester cuts come amidst a decade of decreasing government commitment to science funding.

While grants from the NIH soared from $11 billion in 1995 to $27 billion in 2003, over the last decade they have only risen to a peak of $31 billion in 2010 and have flat-lined at $30 billion ever since. But when adjusted for inflation, NIH funding has steadily declined since 2003 at an average annual rate of roughly 1.9 percent.

“To me, the sequester is almost like, ‘Oh, you were down already? Here is a slap in the face — we’re taking 5 percent more off the top that the NIH has to figure out how to squeeze out of people,’” Shadel said.

The funding climate impacted Shadel’s lab, which investigates mitochondrial DNA, even before the sequester hit this year. Despite continuing productivity and paper publication from his lab, Shadel said he has had a hard time renewing grants that he has held for decades. As a result within the last three years, Shadel has been forced to cut the size of his lab back from 14 to four members.

Over the last decade, Koelle said he has observed the labs of his peers at Yale getting smaller. In better funding climates, roughly the top 20 percent of grants would be funded, Koelle said, but recently, the rate has plummeted to nearly 10 percent.

“If it goes down to a level like that or below, it gets to a point where you just sort of feel hopeless,” Koelle said.

But hope may indeed be on the horizon. In Koelle’s experience, science funding is cyclical in nature: Funding was similarly tight when he was a graduate student in the ’80s, but Koelle recalls his mentors then reminisced about strong funding before he entered science. Funding once more boomed under Clinton, reaching its peak in 2003.

Scientists hope that the sequester represents merely the lowest point of the cycle. Still, many said, scientific research represents an insignificant portion of the total federal budget.

“If you really think about the amount of money the United States invests in discovery and translational science, it’s appalling really, the percentage of that compared to what it would take to bomb Syria tomorrow or what it’s taken to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years,” Shadel said.

 

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

This fall, Congress will once more face the prospect of balancing the annual budget and hitting the nation’s debt ceiling. In the climate of political rancor that is likely to result, the chances of reinstating science funding cut by the sequester are slim.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who fought against the sweeping budget cuts before they went into effect last March, said in an interview with the News that scientific research is particularly unlikely to have a reprieve because many politicians view it as a “low-hanging fruit.”

“The Republican house leadership is absolutely celebratory about sequestration,” Murphy said. “There is a chance that, in the budget debate that is likely to come at the end of this month, there could be the possibility of repealing part of sequestration. But I acknowledge that without Republican support, we cannot repeal sequestration.”

Nearly every scientist interviewed emphasized that the state of scientific research in the United States will be unsustainable if the current paucity of funds continues, as it likely will. The relative lack of funds will force principal investigators to take on fewer post-doctoral researchers, the position traditionally considered a stepping-stone to a successful scientific career. The fewer the post-docs now, the fewer the principal investigators will number in the future.

“You have great post-docs from all the labs at Yale who either will not be able to find jobs or even if they do, not be able to get funding to run their labs,” Shadel said. “We stand to lose our competitive advantage that we have held for hundreds of years in this country.”

Many scientists fear that, with the decrease in funding for fundamental research, the nation’s economic productivity will slow years down the line.

“It is not only scientists who should be concerned,” said Meg Urry, the chair of the physics department. “Given that fundamental research often fuels economic activity decades down the line, the decrease in R&D investments now is likely to have a negative impact on the health of the economy a few decades from now.”

Many say they can only hope that, as the nation’s economy improves, politicians will find the will to restore funding to the levels it reached during the Clinton years. Still, they fear that, at least in the near future, the sequester will represent a semi-permanent state of affairs rather than the low-point of a boom-and-bust funding cycle.

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