The futures of young researchers hang in the balance as lawmakers in Washington play tug-of-war over massive automatic spending cuts.
This Friday, across-the-board slashes in federal spending — a process known as “sequestration” — are set to take place as a result of the summer 2011 deal to increase the federal government’s debt ceiling. Among the agencies that would see large cuts is the National Institutes of Health, which finances a large portion of research at the University. The Perelman School of Medicine stands to lose $40 million in NIH research funding in the first year alone should Washington fail to come to a deal to ease the burden of the sequester.
“We’ve heard on the news that you could lose a whole generation of scientists,” fifth-year immunology doctoral student Peter Morawski said. “And it’s possible.”
‘A bitter pill’
Penn, as one of the world’s most prominent biomedical research and training centers, has a particularly large stake in the outcome of the budget cuts.
If Congress does not come to an alternate agreement, the NIH is set to lose $2.5 billion in funding, which will cause its already-low “payline” — the percentage of grant applications that receive funding — to sink even lower. The agency has seen relatively flatlined funding over the past decade, and the proposed cuts would “devastate biomedical research,” according to the United Medical Research group.
“If there’s no money to renew grants, a lot of research that’s ongoing is going to come to a halt,” Morawski said.
The funding for the lab where he works — which researches the role a protein called FOXP3 plays in the immune system — comes strictly from the NIH. Funding cuts would slow the progress of research that could lead to new treatments for autoimmune diseases, he said.
“[The sequester] would be detrimental to scientific research because you’re taking a program that’s already heavily underfunded … and now you’re going to take a 7, 8 maybe 9 percent cut,” Morawski added.
Just as research could slow, so could the career prospects of the thousands of scientists who conduct that research and whose livelihoods depend largely on NIH dollars.
Caleph Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow studying cancer therapies at the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute in the Medical School, will be applying for grants to start his own research later this year. A tightening of the federal government’s belt could leave him without money — and a much tougher time landing a research position.
“If you have five applicants in front of you and they all got graduate degrees at great institutions, trained at great institutions and are well-published, they’re pretty much equal,” said Wilson, whose first child was born earlier this month. “As an employer, you’re likely to go with the person who [already] has funding because you have to spend less money.”
Wilson’s case is hardly an anomaly.
“We’re all aware of how difficult it is for new investigators,” said Christopher Hunter, chair of the Department of Pathobiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine. Over the weekend, Hunter was part of an NIH study section, where he and about 25 other established researchers scored grant applications.
“For the new investigators who are just starting out, … it’s really hard to get their first grant,” he added. “It’s become a bitter pill to swallow.”
Tenure-track positions are already competitive, and with less money available, young researchers may instead opt to pursue careers in other fields — such as private industry, science policy or consulting.
“If you want to stay in science and become an academic … you’re not going to have a real job until you’re 40,” fifth-year immunology doctoral candidate Shaun O’Brien said.
Fourth-year cell and molecular biology Ph.D. student Michael Convente agreed that funding cuts may drive students away from research careers.
“I know for some of my fellow peers and friends in science, it’s making them think about wanting to leave academia because there’s uncertainty,” he said. “Biotech and private industry seem to be footing a lot of the bill.”
While pharmaceutical companies could see an influx of new researchers, Hunter predicted they would be harmed in the long run by a decrease in funding.
“Almost everyone in those companies has been trained through [government funding],” he said. “Typically, pharma … hasn’t really invested in grassroots training. They take advantage of the workforce training from the NIH.”
“These are the people who have startup companies and are really innovative,” he added.
The ripple effect
Labs are already feeling the effects of budget shrinkages, although the sequester hasn’t even happened yet.
According to Hunter, the NIH has been conservative in awarding and renewing grants because of uncertainty surrounding future funds — which has had a ripple effect throughout academia.
“A lot of labs that are dependent on grants are just being very careful about how they’re spending money right now,” O’Brien said. “They have to stretch that money out.”
The uncertainty has led to layoffs and cautious hiring.
“A little less than a year after I joined, my advisor told me it looked like he wasn’t going to get a grant he applied for,” said a third-year doctoral student, who wished to remain anonymous to protect the reputation of her former advisor. “And because he wasn’t getting it, he might not have money for me.”
At the end of her second year, the student, who is studying cell and molecular biology, had to find a position at a new lab.
While her former boss told her before she was hired that there was a possibility the lab could see funds dry up, she remembered being advised that “Penn has money to fund you if your advisor runs out of money.” However, when the grant application didn’t receive a high enough score, she sought further advice.
“I talked to other people that I trusted — advisors for different labs — and the majority of them were like, ‘You need to leave and get out of there,’” she said.
Her decision to leave the lab was an “emotional process.”
“Is this going to set me back?” she recalled thinking at the time. “Am I going to have to redo everything?”
In her search for a new place to work, security of research money was a top priority.
“I was very blunt in asking, ‘Do you have money for me?’” she said. “That actually weeded out a lot of people.”
After finding work in a neurology lab, she is more optimistic about the remainder of her graduate studies. Because the shift occurred relatively early in her degree program, it probably won’t significantly affect her long-term plans.
“I might graduate a little later than my classmates, but I don’t think it’s going to make a huge impact,” she said. “It was actually a good time to switch, in retrospect.”
‘Advocacy and education‘
In the lead-up to the sequester, several students formed a group to educate the public and fellow graduate students about how policy issues affect research.
“One of the things that concerned me was a lot of graduate students at Penn in the biomedical sciences weren’t really aware of what was happening in Congress,” said O’Brien, the immunology student, who is also the group’s academic chair. “I really want to make sure we communicate to Penn what the sequester is and what the potential impact is.”
Penn Science Policy, which had its first meeting in December, now includes around 30 students who attend monthly meetings, said
third-year doctoral student Mike Allegrezza, the group’s founder.
He said that it aims to combine policy education and advocacy with career guidance for students who intend to enter consulting or policy careers.
“I have been working with … members who have written op-eds, and I’ve been helping them do research and provide different statistics and talking points that they should consider,” Allegrezza added.
While the group is currently comprised mostly of students in the Medical School, he hopes to expand membership into other schools as well.
“Science policy is the overlap between science, law, legislature, bioethics and also business,” he said. “If we have a diverse group of members it will really enrich the discussion.”
As Congress battles in the coming days, the unanimous opinion was that reining in spending shouldn’t come at the expense of research.
“It’s something that Republicans and Democrats have supported in a bipartisan way for a long time,” Hunter said. “[But] the NIH has been caught in this no-man’s land between entitlement and defense.”
“It’s a short-term saving,” he added, “and I think the long-term impact is we’re going to choke off our pipeline of scientists.”