Budget sequester squeezes scientific research

Excerpt of an article by Ariana Eunjung Cha, published in the The Washington Post.

A year ago, Yuntao Wu was on a roll. The George Mason University researcher had just published a study hailed by the scientific press as “groundbreaking” that reveals why HIV targets only a specific kind of T-cell and, separately, found that a compound in soybeans seemed to have promise for inhibiting infection.

These days, Wu — one of thousands of scientists who lost his grant in the wake of sequester cuts — says he spends much of his time hunched over a desk asking various people and organizations for money.

The deep across-the-board cuts in government spending that took effect March 1 have sent shock waves through the nation’s research labs, delaying research and forcing layoffs.

The budget for the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, shrank 5.5 percent. The National Science Foundation budget was trimmed by 2.1 percent. Research funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the defense and energy departments, and other parts of the government that conduct research also were cut significantly.

The sequester has affected all parts of the government but the impact has been especially painful to those in biomedical research, where federal investment in inflation-adjusted dollars has decreased every year since 2003.

Describing the scientific and medical community as “deeply demoralized,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview that the budget cuts are delaying innovation and resulting in more American lives being lost.

“When you’re talking about developing cures, speed matters,” he said.

Among the critical projects that have lost resources, Collins said, is the effort to develop a universal flu vaccine that scientists hope might prevent pandemics.

The funding situation is unlikely to be resolved soon.

While Congress has an Oct. 1 deadline to pass a new spending bill for fiscal 2014, lawmakers are likely to pass a stopgap measure known as a continuing resolution to keep funding levels the same until the end of the year to give themselves more time to debate the issue.

Collins said that the NIH issued 640 fewer grants in the last fiscal year and that if the cuts continue at the same level next year, several hundred more projects will not be funded. He estimates that until recently, scientists applying for federal grants had a 1 in 3 chance of receiving funding. Now it’s more like 1 in 6.

“If you were going to start a new business and you had that kind of chance of being successful, I suspect you would find another way to find a living,” said Edward E. Partridge, director of the cancer center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In a survey released this month, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and 15 other scientific organizations found that 54 percent of those who receive federal funding for scientific research said they have laid off or will lay off staff. And close to 1 in 5 scientists have considered moving overseas for better funding opportunities.

Read the full article here.

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