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The Sequester Is Stifling Science

Budget sequestration was supposed to cause all sorts of disruptions, the kind that would get the attention of middle class voters. It didn’t. And for that reason most of the media stopped paying attention. But the cuts are very real, and so are the effects. Government workers are dealing with furloughs. Head Start classes are eliminating slots. And the economy is taking a hit.

One of the few reporters who has been paying attention is Sam Stein. On Wednesday, the Huffington Post published his latest dispatch—a detailed look at how sequestration cuts were affecting scientific research. His particular focus is the National Institutes of Health. NIH underwrites about a quarter of all biomedical research in the U.S., making it the single largest financier of such research in the country—and the world. NIH got a big funding boost in 2003, but the budget has flat-lined since then (and, according to the group ResearchAmerica, declined relative to inflation). Now, thanks to sequestration, it’s losing money and, as a result, funding fewer programs.

In the article, Stein profiles a few researchers who are feeling the effects. Among them is Yuntao Wu from George Mason University:

Over the past few years, Wu and his lab have been at the forefront of HIV research. His team has studied how genistein, a compound found in plants like soybeans, could essentially impede the communication between a cell's surface sensors and its interior. In this way, they believe it can be developed into a treatment for the virus.

The work's been featured in several top scientific articles. But Wu's attempts this spring to get $100,000 to $200,000 in grant money from NIH were unsuccessful. He blames the sequestration, noting that he had received a total of $1.2 million in NIH funding over the past four years.

To address the current crisis, Wu let go of his technician, stopped doing some research and submitted 10 new grant applications since February. He compared the process to scratching away at lottery tickets.

Along the way, he took out a $35,000 loan to keep his Virginia-based lab open and turned to online fundraising tools. A non-profit organization called Day2 Inc. has begun a charity drive online to help raise $35,000 to help him with repayment (a little more than $20,000 has been raised so far).

"If I'm not funded in the next six months, I will be forced to abandon most of my research project," he said. "Some of these projects have been invested in for years."

Disclosure: I’m not a disinterested observer. I live in a college town, a mile from a university that is the third largest recipient of federal funds in the country. My wife, a professor there, sometimes applies for government money. But if that gives me a stake in public funding, it also gives me a close-up view of what happens when the funding dissipates. The immediate impact, playing out now, is fewer job opportunities for researchers and a drag on the local economy. The long-term impact will be a loss of continuity within existing projects, a slowdown in the start of new ones, and an exodus of talent from the scientific field.

You don't have to take my word on that. “Younger scientists, including those seeking their first, independent research grants, are especially vulnerable to being excluded when grant funds become less available,” Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, told me a earlier this year. He and other leading prominent scientists have been warning about the creation of a “generation gap,” as a group of researchers who would have entered the field today get frustrated and turn to other pursuits. Stein picked up the same sentiments: "We used to be able to tell people that there was some kind of job security," one researcher told him. "That would be a compensation for not being paid as much. Now, if you are taking a big risk in investing 12 years of your life to learn how to do the science, people will think twice."

To be fair, the subjects of cuts always exaggerate their impact. In many cases, researchers, like federal agencies, will find alternative sources of funding—from the private sector or even within their own institutions. And—who knows—maybe somebody wants to make the case that NIH and other federal agencies do a lousy job of funding research.

But I haven't seen anybody do that yet. Among other things, the tiny fraction of applicants they fund go through excruciatingly thorough reviews. Nor have I seen anybody question that government research funding helps make America more competitive. Today, the U.S. a world leader in innovation. That attracts capital and talent. But the U.S. advantage may not be permanent. As the Economist noted back in the spring, “These cuts will speed the erosion of American supremacy in research. In December Battelle, a research group, predicted that China would surpass America’s spending by 2023. Thanks to the sequester, that date may come earlier.” Mary Woolley, president and CEO at ResearchAmerica, has similar thoughts. “As other countries aggressively ramp up investments in research and development, taking a page from our playbook, we are funding lifesaving research in fits and starts,” she says. “If federal funding continues to decline, our leadership status in the short-term will be tenuous at best.” 

Still, the most serious long-term impact may be on the science itself—on chemical pathways not discovered, mathematical models not perfected, and (for medicine) treatments not developed. We won’t feel the effects for many years. But, by then, it will be too late to reverse.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn