Research funding from the National Cancer Institute for the state of Connecticut has decreased by 19 percent since 2010, with the brunt of statewide cuts falling on research awards for Yale — the largest grantee of federal funding in the state, according to recent data from the National Institutes of Health.
The University saw its funding drop by $7 million by 2010, with overall state funding decreasing by approximately $23 million dollars that year. While the reductions come as part of a general downward trend in research funding since 2004, new concerns are being raised about the negative effects that a contracted budget will have on basic cancer research that experts say could vastly improve current knowledge of the disease. Basic research, unlike other types of research, is not directed at the development of a specific drug or technique, but rather is aimed at enhancing understanding of fundamental science.
“What is … frustrating for researchers is being on the cusp of major discoveries, but lacking the funding to see these discoveries come to fruition,” Annees Chagpar SOM ’14, director of the Breast Center-Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Hospital, wrote in a Monday email.
According to Tom Lynch ’82 MED ’86, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician in chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital, the biggest problem with reduced federal research funding is that it limits the funding directed to innovative basic research and population studies on cancer prevalence.
Lynch said that, at the moment, the cuts will not hurt clinical research that much. But at some point, he said, the cancer research community “will run out of good ideas,” and then the funding drop will hit them.
“Basic research is hypothesis generating instead of hypothesis testing — it is the backbone of biomedical innovation,” Lynch said. “A turn away from biomedical research is an economic crisis for our country.”
Dean of Yale School of Medicine Robert Alpern agreed, noting that “it is a shame” that the direction of cancer research will edge away from basic discoveries because “it’s normally the most basic research that transforms science.”
But he emphasized that historical statistical studies can misrepresent how drastic of an issue the drop in federal funding actually is. He said he had informally asked around the medical school to see if people had noticed a sudden drop, but most were unaware.
Alpern said the recent decrease in funding may seem drastic because federal stimulus money — which increased money available for grants — has now come to a close.
In fact, federal funding for cancer research has been declining in real dollars since as far back as 2004. As a result, cancer experts like Lynch also argue that the decline is not drastic when placed in context.
But Chagpar noted that the cuts are particularly concerning now, at a time when technological capacity for pursuing research projects is unprecedented.
“Sadly, these cuts come at a time when our ability to do scientific research is at a peak, from a technological and intellectual standpoint,” she said. “Never before have we had the ability to sequence the human genome as rapidly and as cheaply as we can today. Never before have we had the understanding of immunotherapies as we do now.”
According to Alpern, the financial squeeze is being felt by all areas of research, not just cancer.
While private funding could potentially mitigate the negative effects of federal budget cuts, both Alpern and Chagpar see downsides to relying on the former.
According to Alpern, there simply is not enough.
“To be honest, the magnitude of [private funding] dollars is relatively small compared to federal NIH funding,” he said, adding that it is difficult to have enough private funding to make up for federal cuts.
Heavier reliance on private funding could also affect the nature of research conducted, Alpern said. With less money and smaller grants, researchers are more inclined to be conservative with their projects, as riskier ideas are less likely to be approved.
To Chagpar, one of the greatest drawbacks of relying on private funding is the hurdle to collaborative research funding that it will create. While federal funds are able to foster and support multisite initiatives, some private foundations have geographic restrictions on where their money can flow, creating a problem for large team efforts.
“In my view, the way to move great science forward is to bring together the greatest minds, each with a different vantage point,” she said.