For the past decade the nation’s major funder of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health, has been hit by declining federal funding. This year’s federal budget cuts known as ‘the sequester’ are making things worse. Those budget impacts are starting to be felt in life science and biomedical research communities across the nation, including in Utah.
The budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been stagnant for ten years. That means that every year, the budget is effectively reduced by the cost of inflation, which is about 2.7% for biomedical research. This year, implementation of the sequester budget cuts are amplifying the negative impact on research universities throughout Utah and the US.
Tom Parks, Vice President for Research at the University of Utah, predicts the university will be hit hard. Half of its research budget comes from NIH. “We expect that research funding for the university will be down $35 to 40 Million for the fiscal year that ends on June 30th,” he says.
To be fair, a small percentage of those dollars are due to the ending of stimulus funds rather than funding cuts. But according to the most recent study by the Bureau of Business Research at the university, a $40 Million reduction will lead to an estimated 256 jobs lost at the university, and 656 jobs lost outside of the university.
“We have obligations to support graduate students who we bring into graduate programs and we obviously have obligations to support base salaries of tenured faculty members,” says Parks. “The cuts often fall on other research workers for whom we don’t have those kinds of obligations: postdocs, research associates, and research staff.”
I know of a dozen people who have lost their jobs in the past year, or are worried about losing their jobs this year. The four who talked to me about their experience represented a combined 82 years of scientific expertise. While most of these scientists want to keep doing research, the reality is that some of them may have to find something else.
“I love my work and I just want to continue doing it,” says Michael Redd, research faculty in the Department of Oncological Sciences.
Redd uses a model organism called zebrafish to research neutrophils, a type of white blood cell. His work might one day lead to insights that could help prevent infections in patients undergoing chemotherapy. “That is the second biggest killer in cancer, dying from infection,” he says. He is now essentially volunteering his time to get research studies published so that he will have a better chance when applying for grants to fund his work.
“Because I’m a research faculty I’m required to be a guest in another researcher’s lab. The researcher who I was working with was an MD/PhD studying T-cell development in zebrafish. He literally wrote maybe 50 to 100 grants in the last six to ten years and just couldn’t get enough money to keep it going,” Redd explains.
“I think I’m a harbinger of things to come. Maybe we weren’t quite as organized as some of the other labs and we suffered first. But it’s going to happen to a lot of other labs, and it is happening,” he says. “I know of a lot of people who aren’t getting grants and they have five or ten people working for them. It’s incredibly depressing.”
Matt is another skilled scientist who lost his job recently. He is now working at an entry-level laboratory position that is below his skill level, and pays half as well as his last job. “I lose money every month,” he remarks.
He is still looking for a job in science that will match his expertise, but says he is competing with people with PhDs who normally wouldn’t be applying for this type of job. “I’ve got a B.S., plus about 14 years experience. You know, the PhDs have the academic training on top of the experience,” says Matt. “In some ways I feel sorry for anyone who is just getting out of school who is going to have to compete against that, because they are competing against people who are completely overmatching them.”
And that raises the question. Are we training too many highly skilled life science and biomedical researchers to meet the current demand? Parks isn't sure if there will be a major short term effect, but says if funding cuts continue, the impact will be felt far beyond the biomedical world. “The bargain that was worked out after World War II was that the federal government would support basic research mostly at universities, and companies would focus on later stage applied research and development. That was really the bargain that has given us much of the wealth in this country since World War II.”
He says if we change that, companies will not pick up the cost of doing basic research because there is no benefit to the companies or to their shareholders. “That will mean the companies won’t have the basic research on which to build new products and services and we’ll be a poorer country.”
Parks says they are being told by policy experts that the sequester cuts will likely last through the next budget year, starting on July 1, and that everyone should be prepared to hold on tight.