Research Funding Cuts Affect U.S. Scientists
Less than six months after sequestration began in March, scientists in the U.S. report that federal agency funding cuts have affected how they conduct research. In some instances, scientists have had to consider whether they can keep their labs open. Increasingly, scientists and policy makers are expressing concern that these cuts, if sustained, will have implications for fundamental understanding of the brain, as well as progress on a range of diseases and disorders.
“I have had to scale back my entire research program to levels that may prove to be unsustainable,” one researcher noted in an email response to SfN’s survey about the impact of sequestration. (See ‘What Can You Do?’ sidebar for more information).
Sequestration is the term for the mandatory five percent across-the-board funding cuts that went into effect in March and affect virtually all federal agencies. Cuts to National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) were immediate. For example in fiscal year 2013, NIH will fund an estimated 700 fewer competitive research project grants. This trend is expected to continue as the effects of sequestration ripple throughout the scientific community. Absent congressional action, sequestration will continue for the next nine fiscal years.
Reports of Funding Cuts
Researchers have also responded to NIH director Francis Collins’ call to share how sequestration is affecting their science.
One physician-scientist in Alabama noted that she is struggling to find alternative funding for her research on Parkinson’s disease therapies. Her most recent grant application, which received a fundable score by the standards of earlier grant cycles, went unfunded. Furthermore, she says that because of cuts to her program, she is “seriously considering switching to full-time clinical work as a neurologist.”
Similar stories are emerging from across the scientific community. A scientist in Florida who focuses on alcohol abuse is struggling to secure funding. Her grant, which received a score well below previous paylines, was not funded, and she was forced to lay off a post-doctoral fellow and two undergraduate researchers, and to turn away a graduate student. The future of the lab is threatened, and if closed, will result in the loss of progress made over the last 18 months.
Scientists who receive grants also report challenges managing with reduced funding. Several cite restrictions on their work that force them to eliminate necessary experiments and compromise entire projects. A researcher in Wisconsin related how, after a year of work on novel treatments for human dementias, she lacked the funds “to do the home-run experiment to determine causality,” thus leaving the findings inconclusive.
Sequestration has curtailed opportunities for scientists-in-training in California, where funding was cut in half for a program preparing underrepresented minority undergraduates for PhD programs. Those students must now find other jobs to support themselves, rather than working to develop scientific research skills. Loss of funds due to sequestration means that 30 percent of student trainees in that program will be cut midway through the training unless replacement funding is found.
Future of Scientific Funding
These reports and others from U.S. scientists indicate a fiscal environment that could result in delayed discoveries and potentially detrimental effects on efforts to advance human health. Organizations such as SfN are encouraging scientists to become advocates for biomedical research funding to help reverse the cuts and restore funding for scientific discovery.