Sequester funding cuts have researchers worried

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks at news conference at the U.S. Captiol on the eve of the budget sequester on February 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Megan Kane just got her PhD in human genetics.

Ayesha Shajahan-Haq is a breast cancer researcher at Georgetown University.

Breast cancer researcher Ayesha Shajahan-Haq, center, confers with two lab assistants.

Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America.

The federal budget cuts known as sequestration have taken a bite out of funding for medical research and have sent shock waves through the research community. Newly minted scientists are seeing few opportunities and wondering if they should get out of the field all together. 

27-year-old Megan Kane just got her PhD in human genetics. Now she needs a post-doc position in a lab. But, these days, lab jobs are scarce. Kane says she hears the same story over and over, I just don’t have the cash to hire you.

“Sorry, I’ve been told by the higher ups, we can’t get any money," she recites.

So Kane is interning at Research!America, a science advocacy group in northern Virginia. Instead of peering through a microscope, Kane spends her days in a cubicle, writing a Research!America blog. Kane got into research to make a difference. Now, she wonders if she should do something else.

“You have to really feel like there’s no other way in which you are going to make an impact, to stay through that barrage of no," she says.

The "barrage of no" is being aimed at more senior researchers too, like Ayesha Shajahan-Haq. She got her PhD nine years ago. Now she’s trying to get her first major grant so she can set up her own lab. Right now she’s at Georgetown working in someone else’s lab. 

“And if you do not have a grant, you can’t do anything," she explains. "You’re stuck in this revolving door.”

Shajahan- Haq pumps grant applications out that door, and gets a stream of rejections back. She tells me she spends 90 percent of her time trying to get grants. The need for grant funding factors into almost everything she does. 

“You’re trying to publish, for that grant," she says. "You’re trying to get preliminary data for that grant. And, it’s all connected.”

Shajahan-Haq is a breast cancer researcher looking into why some tumors eventually become resistant to drugs.

She lights up when she shows me the lab she works in, conferring briefly with several lab assistants. Shajahan-Haq says many times she has to shelve interesting experiments to go write another grant application.

It wasn’t always this way. Just ask Mary Woolley, the CEO of Research!America. She started out with an National Institutes of Health research project  back in 1972. At that time, the NIH approved about a third of all grant applications.

“About 35 percent or so were given funding," she explains. "It’s gone up and down a bit, but it has never been as low as it is today.”

Woolley says the NIH estimates that now, only one in ten grant applicants will actually get funding. 


About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Megan Kane just got her PhD in human genetics.

Ayesha Shajahan-Haq is a breast cancer researcher at Georgetown University.

Breast cancer researcher Ayesha Shajahan-Haq, center, confers with two lab assistants.

Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America.

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For posters suggesting that private industry take up the slack in basic research, go to Wikipedia and look up "tragedy of the commons."

I still feel that Marketplace indicates the show has something to do with understanding the value of the Marketplace. #1 Why is the government responsible for research? They are not going to benefit so why shouldn't private firms fund the research. #2 If the budget really hasn't changed all that much maybe we should be looking deeper into the budget rather than blaming everything on the sequester.

In addition to the budget remember that Obamacare really makes it unattractive to invest in health care research If you aren't going to cash in on your new blockbuster drug maybe it is more beneficial for investors to invest in video games. In other words, as the government creates the rules of the research game they have driven investment out and into more desirable parts of the Marketplace.

The morning report only begins to describe the damage. The current NIH budget has been in decline since 2003 when measured in constant dollars. (see : http://www.faseb.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=aDQlNW4adp0%3D&tabid=431 for the data)The work research force is now nearly completely dependent on people in temporary positions. (We can talk about workforce issues another time) The real impact is yet to be felt with the change in decisions about careers yet to be.
I have been supported by the NIH since 1978. For me this time is just going to set my retirement date. For younger people, it will drive them away from biomedical science. For universities and medical schools that are completely dependent for not only research expenses, but salaries of the faculty engaged in research, it is devastating. It is killing not only basic research, but clinical, patient oriented research as well. Perhaps it is the worst for mid-career investigators who have spent years in training and whose work is now begin to bear fruit.
We will lose our leadership in research. Already Singapore and China are recruiting outstanding US investigators, India and Brazil will soon be following them.
In the long run the US can decide that it will be a consumer of knowledge, and not a leader in the new knowledge economy of the future. It is up to our leaders in Washington to decide. Or maybe they already have.

Why should the government be your source of funding and not the marketplace? Maybe instead of sending out Grant applications you should be working with investors and developing research plans. If you develop the latest breakthrough are you going to patent it and be able to make money on it or are you going to sign over the patent checks to the government?

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