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Sequester looming, again

325caee4-9cea-4cd8-b9d9-55425601e54fAfter what seemed like a brief hiatus following the first round of sequester cuts earlier this year, the news is once again filling with impending disaster for science research programs across the country as the next round of budget talks lurches toward an uncertain conclusion. For one, the sequester cuts imposed earlier this year appear all but certain to remain in effect, which will spell even more bad news for science research. These cuts have already taken a significant toll on both current and future research.

News reports of the damage left in the wake of current cuts have detailed not just the impact these cuts are having on current scientific research, but on how the very future of science and discovery is being quickly eroded.

NIH director Francis Collins warned earlier this year that the sequester will lead to the loss of some 20,000 biomedical research jobs. And already, according to a recent survey of 3,700 scientists conducted by the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) this past summer, nearly half of the recipients of federal science funding say they’ve recently laid off or will lay off scientists and researcher because grants are now much tougher to win. Other findings from this survey include:

  • Private investment in academic research has been feeble. Only 2 percent of survey respondents have been able to find private funds to make up for those lost from federal grants.
  • More than two thirds of survey respondents do not have the funds to expand their research operations, postponing important scientific advances in all fields.
  • Research jobs have been lost. Nearly half of survey respondents have laid off researchers and 55 percent have a colleague who has lost his/her job.
  • An overwhelming majority of scientists in all fields believes the U.S. has lost its position as the global leader in scientific research.

But the impact on future research may be the most damaging development. In a September 25th Seattle Times interview, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Director Larry Corey is quoted as saying that younger scientists are bearing the brunt of the federal cuts. “They grew up at a time when research funding seemed plentiful. Now they can’t get their own research off the ground and their own mentors are struggling.”

Corey said almost everyone in research medicine at some point had a mentor “who, frankly, protected me; who raised the money until I could write grants and start my own lab.” Now that protection has disappeared.

Corey said NIH has provided 85 percent of the Hutch’s funding since its inception. Foundations and other funding sources have emerged, but he said the sequester still affects every lab including his own. Corey said the cuts are coming just as recent cancer breakthroughs are poised to change patient treatments. “We can transform cancer in the next five years, more than we could in the previous 15,” he said.

Corey said ultimately federal cuts will undercut research and US dominance in life science breakthroughs. As for the scientists in Seattle affected by cuts, they said local biotech firms aren’t hiring either. One biotech executive said venture capital has been tied up since the recession, and investors are sparse.

In the September 24 Washington Post, Johns Hopkins professor Daniel Raben said that he also worries most about young researchers. “Instead of trying to think about best science, they think about it as a business person. ‘Where’s the money? What’s the question that I can ask that can get money?’ And I find that to be very disheartening and even dangerous because we’re not going to make progress that way,” said Raben, who has had to lay off a technician and a graduate student.

Jeffrey Kuhn, 45, an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech who studies how cells move and cancer metastasizes, is among those who have had to rethink their career goals. After not getting a government grant, he is closing up his cell biology lab in Blacksburg this month.

Kuhn has said he is likely to move to Texas and accept private funding to work on a project involving a medical instrument that may have commercial applications. It’s not his passion, but he said he doesn’t have a choice. He needs the money.

“People are wasting so much time writing grant applications over and over again and not getting anywhere,” Kuhn said. “There was this research study on poverty and how much that influences your ability to think. There’s a 15-point IQ drop. That’s what’s happening in science these days.”

Still, according to the ASBMB press release which accompanied it’s survey findings, even in the face of such adversity, “nearly 95 percent of respondents indicated they want to continue their careers as scientists so they can attempt to make the breakthroughs and discoveries that will shape our society for decades to come.”

Here’s hoping that Congress will do the right thing for science and for this dedicated group of people.

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