Cuts to NIH research squeezes young scientists out

Op-ed by Abigail Schindler, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and co-leader of the Seattle Forum on Science Ethics and Policy published in The Seattle Times.

Abigail1When I think about not being a scientist anymore my heart hurts. But sadly, due to continued budget cuts to biomedical research, within the next few years that is most likely exactly what I will be — no longer a scientist, no longer a researcher searching for cures for disease.

And I am not alone. The number of young scientists being forced out of basic biomedical research in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate, and when this next generation of scientists leaves, it is not coming back.

Like me, these are early career scientists trained in the United States by U.S. tax dollars. We are scientists whose life goal has been to one day have our own research program at an academic institution committed to the search for breakthroughs and cures. Yet because of these budget cuts, catchphrases such as the “brain drain” are proving true. This is a bad omen for U.S. global leadership in biomedical research and the future health and wellness of our nation.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s premier biomedical research agency and the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world. Despite numerous public polls showing strong support among Americans for government funding of basic biomedical research, NIH’s budget was cut by $1.5 billion this year, or 5 percent, from $31 billion.

This dramatic cut means far fewer research grants can be funded. Some of these nonfunded grants might have seeded great biomedical success. But we will never know. NIH has funded more than 135 Nobel Prize winners. Most of them would never have received funding for their research proposals in this current funding environment.

Early career scientists will not be the only ones hurt by decreased funding for biomedical research. Everyone is affected. These cuts will impact all future medical advances in human health such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, heart disease and other debilitating diseases that touch each of us and the ones we love.

Likewise, these cuts will directly hurt the people of Seattle and Washington State. In 2012, NIH provided $459 million in funding to University of Washington and a total of $918 million to Washington state, the highest in the nation. Due to sequestration alone, Washington state is set to lose more than $45 million this fiscal year.

Recently, the U.S. House and Senate considered their respective spending bills for fiscal year 2014. The House proposal recommends a devastating 18.6 percent cut for the NIH. This would translate into a $5.4 billion reduction from the NIH’s current (and already reduced) level. Fortunately, the Senate proposal would provide NIH an increase of 6.1 percent above the current fiscal year.

I’m not asking for pity for me or my future. What I am asking is for people to think long-term regarding the health, wellness and economic prosperity of our great nation. Biomedical research produces an amazing return on investment, and research funding supports the jobs not only of scientists, but also of numerous support staff members.

My fear is that as Congress deliberates spending decisions for next year the NIH will be cut again, more young scientists will leave basic research, and potential biomedical breakthroughs will never come to realization.

Fortunately, Washingtonians are represented by strong supporters of biomedical research and the NIH. U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, all Democrats, will provide voices of reason. For the sake of America’s future leadership in biomedical research and the health of our nation, I urge all members of Congress to work together to find a fair and balanced approach to deficit reduction that replaces the sequestration and preserves NIH funding.

University of Washington School of Medicine is a Research!America member. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

3 responses

  1. “trained in the United States by U.S. tax dollars”? The 2 k$ paycheck you get at the end of your first month as a Post-Doc (after 6 years of Ph.D. and after 4 years of college) must mean that you are in a training exercise. Market-wise, the low pay means that there are too many of us. I think it’s about mass. Why else would a lot of European and Chinese H1-Bs not pay taxes for year 1, 2 and 3 of their Post-Doc? That draws out the Post-Doctoral period. Many NIH investments seem like a hidden subsidy for Pharma companies, who don’t have to carry out much lead finding anymore. There’s a lot of applied research going on but the DUFs (domains of unknown function) are still the prevalent domains in proteins, we don’t know – 10 years after sequencing the genome – how many genes we have and what half of them do and cis-platin, from the 70ies, is still the prevalent cancer drug. I would recommend to let the NIH lose money and try to shore up the NSF until we’ve finished part 2 of the genome sequencing project (function). All in all, we are hurting now to make it easier on the next generations of researchers. There’s tons of brain to go around- where to drain to is the question. Industry isn’t taking us anymore, unfortunately.

  2. I got my first NIH grant in 1987. NIH funding that year was around $7 bn. GDP was $7 tn.

    This year, with NIH funding at $31 bn, GDP is a little short of $ 14 tn. NIH funding has more than doubled relative to GDP.

    1. Sorry if I am not quite as impressed. 1987 about 50% of the grants were funded. You had no competition.

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