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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