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.