Sequester cut funding to 1,000 researchers

Most research funding comes from the federal government, much of it via the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But thanks to the budget sequester, a portion of that money is no longer available.

The NIH estimates that, because of cuts to its budget, about 1,000 researchers didn’t get funded. I’d like to delve into what this means to those researchers and to us.

First off, think of what that means to the researchers. Without funding, they may not be able to complete ongoing research, much less start new projects. Researchers at colleges and universities are under pressure to publish . To get the data needed to write a paper they need to do research. For those researchers who aren’t tenured, underfunding or lack of funding may mean that they will lose their positions at their respective institutions.

Some of those researchers may consider going abroad where funds for research haven’t been slashed. Some may have to scramble to find other jobs. Some may become unemployed.

Scanning electron micrograph of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), grown in cultured lymphocytes. (Photo credit Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith, CDC)

Scanning electron micrograph of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), grown in cultured lymphocytes. (Photo credit Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith, CDC)

And researchers don’t work in a vacuum. The harm goes far beyond them personally.  They participate in training graduate students and post-doctoral students. Those students are also doing research. If the grant moneys dry up, they may be unable to finish their projects and thus, the advanced degree that they have been working toward could be put in jeopardy.

They may also face problems similar to what their professors are facing: not being able to stay at their universities, trying to find a job, becoming unemployed or going abroad. Or maybe leaving scientific research altogether, as their seniors may do.

Undergraduate students, seeing the problems that the faculty is facing, may change majors to avoid facing fights for ever-more-scarce research grants.

Some researchers may have used grant money to hire ancillary personnel to help with their work: laboratory technicians from a variety of fields, grant writers, statisticians and others. As the grant budgets shrink, those people may find themselves underemployed or unemployed.

So not only are we making it difficult for the 1,000 researchers who can’t get grants, but we’re also causing problems for their students and employees as well. And for those who may leave the country, we’re creating the beginnings of a brain drain that, ironically, is taking scientists away from America, rather than to it.

We’re also delaying the progress of researchers who do get funded. Scientists build on the work of others who are in the same, or allied, fields.

 Dr. Rosalyn Yalow at her Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, October 13, 1977, after learning she was one of three American doctors awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine that year. (Photo by USIA)

Dr. Rosalyn Yalow at her Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, October 13, 1977, after learning she was one of three American doctors awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine that year. (Photo by USIA)

Take Rosalyn Yalow, a physicist, who developed the technique of Radioimmuno Assay (RIA). That technique, applied in medicine, biochemistry and other fields, made it possible to accurately measure hundreds of different substances that could only be found in tiny amounts in cells and body fluids. Compounds like hormones, vitamins and others. If Yalow’s work had not been funded when it was, all of the researchers who subsequently used her technique would not have been able to conduct their research.

So those budget cuts to 1,000 researchers are not only hindering them, they act to delay the science being done by others as well.

On a more basic level, this loss of research finding hurts all of us. Those researchers who didn’t get their funding may have been working on studies in diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, HIV, arthritis, depression, cancer and many other diseases.

Or they could be doing research, like Yallow did, that would contribute to other scientists’ work in those fields. Some of us may have one of the above diseases, or may have a relative of friend with one. Or we may develop one as we grow older. Some research trials were halted or delayed. Some of those trials may have helped keep people with potentially fatal diseases alive. They may have provided us with important information for future research. They might have made headlines and attracted bright, young students into the field.

Because of the sequester, and possible future cuts in the budget for research funds, we all lose.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • Jim

    I think ‘the truth’ is a bit different. The number of fully funded researchers was dropping for the past decade. The NIH is trying to ‘compensate’ for the drop by splitting the grants between two (or more) researchers:
    http://grantome.com/blog/research-dollars-divided

  • jared

    It’s very difficult to talk about these things without coming off like a narcissistic a**hole. Realizing this, I was very hesitant about hitting post even after spending the time writing what I did. What I was saying was not an attempt to elevate my own ego or put anyone down. But something unique happened to me at the end of my 5th year of doing this, even after having a masters degree and many years at the labs. I kept finding myself caught up in unique discussions about inventing new knowledge, and what it takes to ensure that knowledge is transferred appropriately to the next generation. It was something I had never participated in, and as I continue to find myself in conversations like this, I can honestly say that there is something very unique about what the professors bring to the table, even the ones who I consider to be the crappiest teachers. Again, I have no intention to alienate or elevate myself, but it’s just something that I’ve observed too many times to be a coincidence.

    P.S. The “best and brightest” comment came from my former employer. The administration got off on telling us how wonderful we all were. It contributed nothing to my comment and I’m sorry I used it.

    P.P.S. I am the safety guru for our lab. I accidentally spilled a gallon of HF on myself in the cleanroom 3 years ago and luckily walked away unscathed. I have a tremendous amount of respect for safety, but my experience in the private sector and the labs have proven that their approach is nothing but a cover-your-ass show and ultimately a huge impediment to getting any real work done.

  • perljammer

    “anyone obtaining a PhD in this American morass of an education system is entitled to be a cynic.”

    You’re right, but I don’t have a PhD; just a lowly BS in Engineering. But I hobnob with a bunch of PhDs, inside and outside academia.

  • 2karmanot

    Don’t apologize. I love it when you go over the top—-it’s fun and thought provoking. Plus, anyone obtaining a PhD in this American morass of an education system is entitled to be a cynic. However, if bitter, they win. By ‘they’ I mean corporate money, tenured dead wood and over paid administrators.

  • 2karmanot

    Or if one listens is he/she a cynic or a budding sophist? Read a single page of Hegel, now that will take three years.

  • 2karmanot

    So true: create jobs by destroying unions, destroying the middle class and reverting the past one hundred years gain by establishing a neo-corporate feudalism.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    I took philosophy for three years one week. The only thing I learned was: If a philosopher talks, and there’s nobody listening, is he really saying anything?

  • perljammer

    If you’re talking about the edit, then no, it wasn’t intended to be bitter or cynical.

    Sometimes I get a little carried away when posting. When I catch going over the top, I try to apologize.

  • 2karmanot

    Now, if that isn’t back handed bitterness, then we experience different understandings of cynicism.

  • 2karmanot

    “there’s a reason the degree is called a doctor of philosophy” ” On the whole, we do it for the love of humanity”. Exactly so.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    I worked through high school and my first round of college as a lab tech at a government facility. Though I had nothing to do with the money side of things, it was constantly hanging over everyone’s heads like a Sword of Damocles. Nothing was done in the lab without everyone knowing how it was going to impact our funding, and even when we had a grant, there was constant worry from the supervisors that our money would go away, or run out, before we finished the project – thus rendering a year or more of research a complete waste. This is what the sequester did – not just impacting new research, but rendering ongoing research and money already spent, a waste. This is what happens when government cuts without thought or care, but instead only to change some numbers on a ledger sheet. It is a bad enough system in the best of times. When you give the ignorant and reactionary the reins, everybody loses.

  • perljammer

    “I personally I relish the fact that we are not subject to all of the
    regulations of industry. As the “best and the brightest,” yada yada
    yada.”

    I get it. You’re smart and capable, and I really do
    believe that; otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.
    However, there is a good reason that “Pride goeth before a fall” is a
    very old saying. You can be assured that the only reason private
    industry imposes all the training and procedural red tape is that it’s
    more profitable than not doing it, which means it’s effective at preventing injury. People who consider themselves too
    smart to need training are the ones most likely to be hurt. I wish you
    the best, and sincerely hope you don’t wind up injured.

    If you’re sticking around because you love it, congratulations, and I mean it. Many stick around because they’ve made a huge sacrifice in time, effort, and future earning potential, and they don’t want to admit it was a mistake.

    By the way, don’t get too
    dewy-eyed over the “doctor of philosophy” title — it has little to do
    with love of humanity; it’s a carry-over from the Age of Enlightenment,
    when science was called “natural philosophy”. And that happy feeling
    the professor gets when his students follow the same career path? Just a
    little bit of that is like the guy in the freezing lake telling his
    buddies, “Come on in — the water’s fine!”

  • docsterx

    I saw that the NIH budget seems to have “flat-lined” over the past few years. It’s reprehensible and a shame that medical and scientific research takes hits and other areas of the federal budget are sacrosanct.

  • TheOriginalLiz

    If China and India both develop viable, educated middle classes, somebody’s got to pick up the illiterate, uneducated worker status – guess that would be us, and there are already a number of states leading the way to the “new america”.

  • docsterx

    Somewhat similar to what happens in medical residencies and fellowships. Residents and fellows get paid, but not much. And the hours were long. On call, which was about every 4th night in first year, we normally worked about a 32 hour “day” (sometimes with no or minimal sleep) and then needed to be back about 10-12 hours later for another 11-12 hour day. When we figured out our hourly rate, we found that the staff at Burger King, across the street from the hospital, was doing better than we were. Plus, those who trained at US medical schools often were working on repaying student loans that might easily be >$100,000.

    The hospitals were getting massive amounts of work out of us for little money. In fact, they got reimbursed with federal funds for training us. So it was a win-win situation for them.

  • Monophylos Fortikos

    I have to agree at least partly with this. I’ve seen some pretty frightening and careless things in graduate research labs, especially the small and underfunded ones.

    Another aspect of this is that since the success of a Ph.D. candidate depends so heavily on helping their professor crank out as many publications as possible, a lot of the work that ends up being done is of dubious quality–not necessarily “bad science”, but work that’s repetitive, redundant, or simply not very useful but which can be worked up into more papers. A genuinely useful paper on a new analytical technique, for example, might be followed up with a string of papers that basically retread the same technique only with different analytes in the hopes of getting new papers out of what’s basically the same work. I think also of the thousands of articles in organic chemistry journals describing some “new” catalyst for hydrolysis of esters or dehydration of amides or something utterly routine of that sort, where the proposed new catalyst offers zero advantage over existing methods. One can’t say that any of this work is truly useless but I think if it weren’t for the “publish or perish” mentality there’d be a lot less time wasted on it.

  • jared

    As a graduate student who is 8 weeks away from my defense, I personally I relish the fact that we are not subject to all of the regulations of industry. As the “best and the brightest,” we’re capable of handling ourselves without constant oversight. I left a career at one of the national labs to return to grad school so I that I could spend more than 30% of my time on research and not taking safety quizzes and deal with the bureaucracy all day long. And take on an extremely high risk project, one that could never be justified in industry or these days in the highly risk averse national labs.The take home pay isn’t great, and sure I miss the money, but there’s a reason the degree is called a doctor of philosophy even when the majority of our time is spent in a lab performing scientific or engineering experiments. On the whole, we do it for the love of humanity, which is why it gives a professor no greater joy than to see his/her students also follow that career path.

    Grad students, like teachers love to b*tch, but at the end of the day we stick around because deep down we love it. As to the compensation argument, people do what they want to do. We’re not stupid. We understand basic concepts such as opportunity cost and see our friends in their chosen career paths. What you won’t hear to name a few is that we have many perks such as making our own hours and free trips (read vacations) to conferences. We find catered free food on a daily basis at university events, and receive subsidized housing. So now you know the big secret. (My labmates read this blog, I think I’m going to go hide now.)

  • Monophylos Fortikos

    Sometimes I wonder where people think all that wonderful technology–that is, of course, miles better than anyone else’s in the world because America–comes from and how it gets made, if they also think that anyone with a higher education is an elitist and godless snob.

  • 2karmanot

    Bingo. You certainly know your away around academe!

  • 2karmanot

    That last sentence says it all!

  • 2karmanot

    It may not be that far away. A small mutation has created a deadly flu in California that has already killed dozens of young people.

  • 2karmanot

    Saddening, madding for sure. It doesn’t even take a meta data scan to understand that America is in big FAIL mode. It simply cannot survive world eminence without substantial investment and high maintenance of science, education and public well being. Nothing seems able to stop this dystopian Juggernaut.

  • TheOriginalLiz

    This is ‘merca – we don’t need no stinkin’ science!

  • Indigo

    Right. This is exactly what was intended. The purpose of the sequester was to do more harm in order to prove to the Right Wing’s satisfaction that the government is broken so we need less government. Boehner made that clear when it happened.

  • jared

    Both sides of the aisle were complicit in this travesty. Our lab was affected, although thanks to my PI’s fantastic grant writing skills, we were able to compensate. $85b isn’t chump change, but it’s not a significant portion of our enormous budget. It was never a great idea, but instead of using this opportunity to cut down on waste, fraud and abuse, every politician involved chose to play politics and seek out the highest impact cuts. They all make me sick.

  • perljammer

    Don’t take it personally; there are exceptions to every rule, and your school may be one of them. I’m glad to hear about the positive things you have to say; it sounds like a much better than average environment for the grad students and post-docs. On the other hand, I know a quite a few of grad students and post-docs from some prestigious schools, and your story is not their story.

    Of course schools pay their science grad students. That’s not much of a secret, and there would be precious few people enrolling if there weren’t stipends and free tuition. That’s how the treadmill gets greased. My personal knowledge and experience says that the formality, intensity, and quality of safety procedures and training in university labs is significantly below industry standards.

  • bkmn

    Who will be bitching about the slow response when the next pandemic appears? Those who hate science the most.

  • EyeTee

    THank you for highlighting this. It is estimated that every dollar of grant funding generates a further $2-5 in local economic activity. SO as you point out, the sequester has cut significant economic activity quite apart from its effect on the research.

    The sequester also came on top of a period of flat budgets at NIH which because of biomedical research inflation, is a decline in real dollars. And the President’s budget is not restoring that; according to the Chronicle of HIgher Ed, “The budget of the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of basic research money to universities, would be $30.4-billion, an increase of just $200-million from the current year. After accounting for inflation, that would be a cut of about 1 percent.”

    The effects are real and they hurt. I’ve had to give up part of my salary to keep as much of my group together as possible, and still had to let someone go. A project with a good score will nevertheless not be renewed, because the funding line has dropped so far–it was in year 12, but won’t go on. THink of that investment wasted! We are seeing colleagues denied tenure because it takes too long to get a grant. The average age for a first NIH grant is over 40. Tell me, why would we expect any bright students to want to do science?

    MEanwhile, China, Singapore, and other countries are increasing their investment in research. Only the US are we cutting it. But the anti-science faction in Congress seems to forget that they get cancer too.

  • EyeTee

    While there are definitely problems with the pyramid structure of the academic profession, I am going to take issue with several of your comments.

    First, about hazardous conditions, this is simply not true. My lab is inspected rigorously and regularly by both local and state authorities and there are firm standards. When accidents occur somewhere, we all learn from that and believe me, the last thing I want to have happen on my watch is an accident that would injure any of my students. and that’s the last thing my university wants (if nothing else, the liability and bad publicity would given them nightmares).

    Moreover, most of my students have gone to industry and are doing great there, and I am very proud of them.

    Grad students in the sciences are not paid well. But the big secret is that they also do not pay tuition: that is covered by the school or paid by the PI. So basically, we pay them to get a PhD–not a lot, but enough to live on, and NO SCHOOL DEBT from their PhD. Not a bad deal, when you think about it. It is one of the few meritocratic aspects of American academic life: if you have the brains to get into grad school at Harvard to study biology, Harvard will pay you to do the degree.

  • perljammer

    I have truly mixed feelings about this. It’s obviously bad to the extent that basic research is hampered. However, the current academic system for sciences is very seriously flawed.

    Research professors are under constant pressure to obtain grant money in order to keep their grad students and post-doc workers employed at compensation levels that are barely above the poverty line. More grant money means more workers, not better working conditions. Safety standards in university research labs, where they exist at all, are abysmal. Meanwhile, teaching positions that would allow the post-docs to escape from their “research slave” jobs are few and far between, and jobs in private industry are scarce and subject to intense competition; meanwhile, the few who escape to private industry are scorned by those who choose to remain in academic indentured servitude. In other words, the system works to produce cannon fodder for research. It’s an endless cycle — spend 7 years or so getting your doctorate, then the foreseeable future overseeing the work of other people spending 7 years getting their doctorates. All this for the opportunity to work long hours in hazardous conditions for miserable pay and scant benefits, in exchange for the chance to get your name included on your professor’s publications. This is well known and widely discussed among grad students and post-docs in the sciences. It’s a wonder that people are still attracted to those lines of study.

  • S1AMER

    Yeah, but it’s only science, and who in the GOP gives a damn about that?

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