The shutdown may be over, but sequestration still threatens research

shutterstock_127896818The impact on science of this month’s federal government shutdown is still being calculated. But even before the shutdown, research across the U.S. was on rough footing.

Sitting in his office, Randolph Watnick, PhD, points to a stack of file folders and papers on his desk. It’s a good six inches tall. “I usually send out 10 or 11 grant applications in a year,” he says. “This year, I sent out that many by July.”

Watnick, who studies cancer metastasis at Boston Children’s Hospital, is writing so many grants because it’s what he has to do to keep his lab afloat. Like thousands of researchers across the U.S., he is trying to make up for funding losses due to sequestration—the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts that went into place in March of this year.

In conversations with researchers up and down the academic ladder, the picture that comes together of sequestration’s impact on research is not pretty. And the worst may be yet to come.

A hard landing

For researchers who rely on National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding (and in biomedicine, most do), sequestration has had three impacts:

  • A reduction in the number of grants awarded. The NIH expected to fund about 650 fewer grants in fiscal year 2013 than in 2012, a 14 percent drop.
  • An average 4.7 percent reduction in the size of awards for new grants
  • An average 7 percent-per-year reduction in disbursements for ongoing, previously awarded grants

As Jordan Kreidberg, MD, PhD—a kidney disease researcher and chair of Boston Children’s Research Faculty Council—points out, NIH funding levels had already been going down for a few years before sequestration.

“We’re getting into uncharted territory in terms of how hard it is to obtain funding,” Kreidberg says. “I thought we were in a funding crisis before sequestration because of cuts in the NIH pay lines,” referring to changes in how the NIH institutes score grants and decide which ones to fund.

“It’s especially hard for young investigators,” he adds, “who, in some cases, are finding it incredibly difficult to get their first grant.”

“It’s especially hard for young investigators who, in some cases, are finding it incredibly difficult to get their first grant.”

What’s more, sequestration comes on the tail of both the NIH doubling—a six-year budget growth period that significantly increased the number of investigators seeking research support—and a subsequent eight years of flat NIH budgets.

As a result, by March the average researcher’s funding had already dropped by nearly 20 percent in terms of real or inflation-adjusted dollars over the last decade.

“Both people and institutions thought that after the doubling there would be a gentle decrease in funding,” Kreidberg explains. “We’ve experienced a hard landing instead of a soft one.

Squeezed from all sides

At a recent research town hall meeting at the hospital, Boston Children’s management and several faculty committees, including Kreidberg’s, discussed their efforts to make resources available to help struggling researchers and recruit new ones.

But those resources come from revenue generated by the hospital’s clinical operations, which may also be on the decline. Increasing pressure from insurers and federal and state governments to reduce health care costs—itself a laudable goal—could unintentionally starve research further.

Many investigators are turning to philanthropic foundations, which often help early- to mid-career scientists get their start. But even that support is becoming difficult to come by as more senior scientists apply for the same foundation funds to make up federal shortfalls.

Are the real hard times yet to come?

LevyLab-89For the moment, Watnick—whose most recent check from the NIH was 10 percent smaller than usual—has been able to absorb the cuts by slowing down his research and cutting back on supplies; he hasn’t had to resort to cutting salaries or layoffs.

But he worries that his flurry of grant submissions may, in the long term, hurt his research and career plans.

“I’m spending so much time writing grants to fund experiments that I can’t write papers about the data I have,” he explains. “Which means my publication record will suffer, which makes it harder to get funding…it’s a vicious cycle.”

What concerns Watnick the most are the prospects for laboratories seeking renewal of their R01 grants—the large NIH grants that make up the lifeblood of an academic research laboratory. Those grants come up for renewal every five years.

“When people who submitted renewals over the last year start to hear back, we’ll start seeing labs with big multi-year funding gaps,” he says.

Those gaps could end up costing our economy and society far more—in money and lives—than what has been saved in the short term.

“Sequestration is having a devastating effect on the development of new treatments for the most severe diseases affecting children and on our country’s long-standing leadership in biomedical research and medicine,” says David A. Williams, MD, one of the leaders of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Hospital Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and chair of Boston Children’s Clinical and Translational Research Executive Committee.

He points out that 500,000 jobs nationally are supported directly or indirectly by research, adding, “Congress should approach budget reduction with an understanding of the irreparable damage that cutting the NIH budget will have on the future health of our nation.”