Possible funding cuts weigh on researcher
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on February 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.
The dreaded federal budget axe known as the sequester is scheduled to fall on March 1. Congress and the president can only avoid the across-the-board cuts by coming up with a deficit reduction deal. The sequester standoff is causing widespread uncertainty and stress -- and not just for the more than four million federal workers. The cuts would be felt across the country in places that might surprise you, like a science lab in Baltimore.
Jennifer Elisseeff doesn’t work anywhere near the marble halls of Congress. She’s much more at home among tangles of test tubes and microscopes.
She teaches biomedical engineering. She’s gave me a tour of her labs at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus in Baltimore, where she showed me tissue samples under the microscope.
The tissue that Elisseeff peered at is supposed to resemble knee cartilage. Her research focuses on re-growing body parts. She starts with cells she grows in the lab -- they’re attached to a sort of scaffolding that can be inserted into the body.
“Just like you put scaffolding -- construction workers put scaffolding as a building is being built and then they take the scaffolding down after it’s finished,” she explained.
Elisseeff’s scaffolding is designed to biodegrade when the body is finished with it. This is all pretty whiz bang stuff and it doesn’t come cheap. About 75 percent of Elisseeff’s funding comes from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department. And those grants could be chopped as part of the across-the-board sequester cuts. Elisseeff says the uncertainty of the sequester is wearing on the scientists in her lab.
"When there is that stress and the uncertainty, it does affect people’s energy and excitement for building something,” she says.
Elisseeff contemplated the cuts’ consequences: Reductions in her staff of 25, slower, scaled–down research. She’s frustrated and suffering from sequester stress. One way she copes? Reassuring herself that Congress and the president would never let this happen.
“Part of me sees it as a political game," she says. "And so I’m not fully certain how much of it will be executed. But I think it’s a terrible game to play that will affect people’s lives.”
And could drive top scientists to other countries that would gladly fund their research. Elisseeff says it’s tempting. In fact, she’s going to take a temporary break from Johns Hopkins for a short sabbatical in Switzerland.