SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 17, 2013

Column: Budget cuts cripple science, medical research

Bill Maxwell
The Salem News

---- — Before sequestration took effect in January, dire predictions came from almost every area that would be impacted. Sequestration is the process of automatic across-the-board budget cuts in most federal departments and agencies.

Although some people may have been crying wolf, those in science and medical research clearly were not, according to a survey of research institutions by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Science and medical research are vital areas that should have been spared by lawmakers hell-bent on deficit reduction.

The survey shows that billions of dollars in cuts to federal research funding is forcing institutions across the nation to shut down laboratories, lay off researchers and struggle to find new avenues of funding. Further, important investigations are being threatened for the long term, and many top scientists are leaving their fields.

Umbrella agencies that fund thousands of research projects through competitive grants must turn away many qualified applicants, some that would have been all but guaranteed money before sequester, the survey indicates.

The National Institutes for Health, which oversees the biggest pot of federal money for grants, saw its budget slashed by $1.55 billion. It has been forced to drop 703 research grants this year.

One of its grantees, Harvard Medical School, lost $250,000 in funding. This cut, according to the survey, has forced the university to shrink the size of a major lab at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston after NIH discontinued a grant. In addition to cutting services, the lab had to lay off six of its 10 staff members. The University of Chicago’s department of surgery, an NIH grantee, was forced to close three labs and hand pink slips to seven researchers.

The National Science Foundation is another umbrella agency that is turning away grants because of sequestration. In the survey, officials said they probably will cut the number of incoming research grants by approximately 1,000.

While sequestration is affecting the current status of programs, it also is affecting the future in ways apparently unforeseen by lawmakers who crafted the legislation in the heat of Beltway partisanship.

Researchers and administrators who spoke with Inside Higher Ed, an online journal, said they already are seeing a brain drain in biomedical research that could continue for many years.

“The real tragedy is that we are irreversibly losing good people,” Karl Matlin, professor of surgery and vice chairman of research at the University of Chicago’s department of surgery, told Inside Higher Ed. “Young people don’t look at this as a desirable profession.”

Matlin’s views are shared by Thomas Michel, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Harvard Medical School: “I fear that we’re going to be losing a generation of bright young scientists who might take their talents in other directions. I’m seeing it already in the choices that people make as they complete their clinical training now, but it’ll trickle down to people in graduate school and undergraduates.”

Another problem caused by sequestration is that young scientists will not have funds to conduct research that could help them along their career paths. Why would they stay in a profession in which they cannot advance? “In the end, you’re weakening young faculty members’ ability to get their research off the ground, and in doing so, you’re potentially weakening their tenure case,” Jonathan Dordick, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said for Inside Higher Ed. “It’s tough enough anyway.”

You would think that because science and medical research are vital in untold ways to America’s health and wealth and general well-being, members of Congress would be wise enough to stop automatic cuts in these fields before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Researchers and agency administrators certainly hope so. Many believe, however, that current U.S. politics has little regard for science and medical research. Deficit reduction is all that matters.

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Reach Tampa Bay Times columnist Bill Maxwell at bmaxwell@tampabay.com.