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September 17, 2013

Column: Budget cuts cripple science, medical research

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.

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