'A Generation of Untrained Scientists' After $1.6 Billion in Cuts to Biomedical Research

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


New York and New Jersey are losing close to $114 million in biomedical research funding from the federal government, caused by across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration. Nationwide $1.6 billion in medical research funding has been cut.

It means hundreds of labs will have to shut down – years of medical research sitting on shelves until funding comes back.

Unlike furloughs on air traffic controllers, which Congress ended after complaints over flight delays, scientists say there aren’t many consumers to complain about cuts in biomedical research. But researchers at major institutions like Rutgers University and Columbia University say the effect of the sequester on the medical industry will be felt for years.

“Science is not something which you turn on and off like the faucet,” says Michael Shelanski, the head of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Columbia University. “If you turn off a lab, that lab doesn’t recover.”

Effects of the Sequester

Federal agencies affected by the sequester cannot prioritize where to make cuts—with the exception of the Federal Aviation Administration, which was recently given flexibility by Congress to administer their spending cuts in order to avoid flight delays.

In biomedical research, the sequester means every health institute in the country has had its budget cut by five percent. This includes the groups that fund research on health issues like cancer and infertility, schizophrenia or the flu.

(Photo: Brian Onken, a post-doctoral fellow at the Molecular Genetics lab at Rutgers University, looks at worms under a microscope. Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

“Because of the way that the sequester is being applied, the flexibility that you might hope to have at a time of fiscal difficulties in our country is not being offered up,” said Francis Collins. He oversees the $30 billion in taxpayer funds that go to medical research each year, as the Director of the National Institutes of Health – the NIH.

Collins estimates about 20,000 jobs will be lost in the U.S. because of the sequester — 1,898 jobs in New York and New Jersey alone. 

Money that labs were promised to continue their research will not come in. Other projects will get less funding than they were originally told.  

At Rutgers University, Monica Driscoll’s molecular genetics lab is looking into ways exercise improves the quality of aging, including life span, movement and memory loss, like Alzheimer’s disease.

A check that was due to the university on April 1st has not arrived yet and Driscoll is paying her staff off the expectation that the check will come. If it does not arrive it could mean she has to let researchers go, which scientists say can set a lab back years.

At Rutgers University, the most junior researcher in the Genetics Department has been there for 11 years. That person’s brain, scientists say, is the most important resource in any lab.

‘A Generation of Untrained Scientists’

There’s little to no money to bring in post-doctoral fellows—people with PhDs who need lab experience. And scientists worry shrinking budgets for fellows will lead to a generation of untrained scientists.

Linda Lee is a post-doc at Columbia University researching the causes of memory loss, but she has decided to walk away from lab work.

“I am planning on going into something along the lines of science editing or science writing,” Lee said. “I love science and I’m passionate about what I do and the research but over the years I have noted that the funding is very scarce.”

Funding for medical research makes up less than one percent of the entire federal budget. In the past decade it’s been cut by 20-percent.

(Photo: Cuts in biomedical research funding means scientists like Monica Driscoll at Rutgers University are spending less time in labs making discoveries and more time at their desks looking for funding. Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

For someone with a PhD who has worked in a lab for years, a good salary is $50 thousand. And scientists say they’re spending less of their time in labs making discoveries, and more time at their desks writing grants and competing for shrinking research funding.

Between piles of paper stacked two feet high on Monica Driscoll’s desk is a bottle of champagne sitting uncorked for the next great thing that happens.

“You got to celebrate the little victories,” she says. “All the little exciting discoveries.”

WNYC wants to hear about how the sequester is affecting the lives and jobs of people in our community. Email us your experience at or send us a message on Facebook or Twitter @WNYC.


Comments [13]

kevin from ULS

bio-med research, has lead us down the road to a screwy one-minded medical model of health. if you don't address this,nothing else matters.

May. 10 2013 11:39 AM

When the majority of STEM workers are coming in with H1B visas and the sequester cuts do not show evidence of restoration within the next four years, how , in good conscience, can schools steer students towards these professions? Perhaps it is time to not simply read the writing on the wall, but to accept its meaning as well.

May. 08 2013 10:45 AM

It's a shame. I wonder how many jobs would have been saved if the President would stop hosting concerts at the white house.

May. 07 2013 11:48 PM
John from Westchester

The story missed a number, $115 million is 5% of "$2.3 Billion? Come on, stop crying. There are some of us who were lucky enough to take 40% pay cuts to stay working in the height of the recession, fortunately we kept working. Five percent across the board - seems easy. I say go back and visit the air traffic controllers, that was a crime, they congested traffic to get their money and now other transportation improvement work gets the axe,,,, interview that unemployed worker, find the controller who slowed down his work for another employee's job - that was real team work - not!!!

May. 07 2013 06:00 PM
WNYCFan from New York

Linda Lee is hot.

May. 07 2013 11:53 AM
Kitty from NYC

I don't think any scientist is saying that their jobs are more important than other people's livelihood. The point is that scientific discoveries are not like manufacturing where you can expand and downsize rapidly. For one thing, it takes a committed person 5-10 years to get a Ph.D. and another 4-8 years of postdoctoral training to become an independent researcher. Unlike J.D., M.D. or M.B.A. , there is no high payout at the end of that tunnel. It really takes a dedicated person with passion to stay in this profession. Scientific research in a given lab has to be in a continuum, otherwise you lose the momentum and the data can be lost forever as Dr. Driscoll mentioned. The invisible loss (of trained scientists and medical discoveries) is a major concern being made here.
The sequestration and the 5% cut is not the first reduction medical researchers have experienced. The field has seen a series of lowered funding rates and multiple administrative cuts since 2004. For example, last year, only 17.6% of grants got funded by the National Institute of Health; that’s >30% reduction from 2004 (when 26% of grants were funded). During 1997-2003, the annual funding success rate was above 30%. The field has been starving and experiencing reduction since 2004. It seems like every year there is an additional 10% administrative cut on the funded grants. Labs have been closing and scientists have been leaving the field since 2004. The sequestration and the 5% cut are akin to the last straw on the camel’s back.
Another point of the interview is that scientists are not the only one impacted by the reduction in the NIH funding. All the industries that support science and medical research are all suffering. Therefore, this is not an isolated issue that has no ramification to the rest of the society.
Scientists are not the type to make noises and complain. As Dr. Davidson stated in her essay,, we are sustained by passion and accustomed to living on pennies, since none of us would have gone into this line of work if we were looking for monetary rewards. But that passion is running thin after a decade of neglects. As an educator in addition to being a scientist, I wonder if I am doing a disservice to my students by inspiring them to pursue science. Our country has to make a decision if scientific discoveries and innovations are worthy investments for our future.

May. 07 2013 11:52 AM
Erik from Manhattan

I'm not sure about academic scientists being less valuable than those in industry. I think that the sequester has, for some, pushed an already creaky and unstable career trajectory ( into the unacceptable category. The fact that this has been trending for some time ( , and the sad ramifications precipitated this discussion. Devaluing scientific talent in some industries appears to be real, and similarly sad occurrence ( but apparently good for business.

May. 07 2013 11:40 AM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from Bk

About 80% of Biomedical research carried out in laboratories is done on nonhuman animals. If these cutbacks mean that less laboratory animals will be brutally exploited than this is a good thing.

May. 07 2013 11:24 AM

It saddens me that the comments here do not address a key point. The majority of scientists (with PhD's) in academic settings earn a paltry sum incongruent with the number of years of schooling, debts acquired and sacrifice (putting on hold life activities like marriage, children). The fact is: 4 years of college, 2-5 years of graduate school means that one only begins to receive a living wage pay check for the first time around the age of 27. Not to mention having spent much of their early adult life not being able to save for retirement while sharing residence with other students. I know people who went into finance and had 500K in savings by the time they reached 30! I'm not suggeting that PhD's earn a lot more; but to cut something that is 1% of the budget reuslting in fewer innovations and a loss of our competitive edge just seems counter productive in the long run.

May. 07 2013 11:08 AM
Michele from NYC

I disagree w/ Lee Smith-- I am fairly sure there was nothing in what Dr. Driscoll said that suggested that she, or the other research scientists in her lab or other labs affected by the sequester, believe that the losses across the economy have been any less profound than what the sequester is doing to their field. I think they ARE expressing the gravity of their specific situation-- because the loss is, indeed, grave and far-reaching in ways that people outside their field may not realize. It will without a doubt affect therapies, technologies & medicines available down the road for all the reasons mentioned in the piece, and it will without a doubt affect the careers and programs available to students who are only in high school today. As a Rutgers-educated teacher who has invested heavily in promoting science education (and, specifically, science-focus for female students), the cuts to lab grants which fund the programs and scholarships that create possibilities for my students (and the world in which they wish to work) is particularly resonant to me.

Rupert from Piscataway nails it.

May. 07 2013 10:34 AM
Rupert from Piscataway

I think the article didn't stress a few things that the other commenters are concerned about. The 5% across the board trim - unfortunately, that doesn't get applied evenly to all labs. If it was, then it wouldn't be so bad to use a slightly cheaper brand of pipette tips or microcentrifuge tubes, it wouldn't be optimal, but the work would still get done. But it doesn't work like that. Some labs just won't get any funding at all. Whole grants just won't be renewed, basically gutting the lab. In addition, the most expensive part of a lab is the personnel, which are already being paid very little, leaving little room for cuts there.

The comment about 11 years of experience: the article misrepresented that. That 11 years of experience is only in faculty and post-doc positions, it does not include the training required to get a position. In the biomedical research field, training begins during the undergraduate years, with students working in labs and helping write papers even before they have a bachelor's. Add 5-6 years of grad school to that, and a 2-4 year post doc, and then the 11 years looks a little better. I think the point Driscoll was trying to make was not to devalue people in other jobs, but just to highlight how difficult and expensive it is to train scientists, when a post-doc in someone else's lab, not even your own lab, requires over ten years of study and training. If you're in that eighth year and the funding disappears, all the tax money that had been poured into that researcher is wasted.

May. 07 2013 10:00 AM
Christine from Westchester

I totally understand the value of research and researchers, but this story seems like more of the sensational "Oh not the sequester will bring doom!" story. It's a 5% cut across the board. I find it hard to believe they can't affort to trim 5%. Where I work, we've done that a number of times. In the private sector, we've faced these cut backs and managed (some times in ways better than we had been before.) If these guys are so very intelligent, I have to believe they can figure out how to manage a 5% trim.

May. 07 2013 08:40 AM
LEE SMITH from Wanaque, NJ

I heard this story today. As a Rutgers educated Chemist I was concerned. When you got to the point where the one researcher stated they might have to loose people with 11 years experience I realized something. She really believed that their work was more important than say all of the other jobs than had been lost in the economy--they're not. We lost people with 30 years experience in this economy and I guess medical researchers thought,"hey, won't affect me, I'm just too important." Well, I guess the sequester has real value as a teaching moment.

May. 07 2013 06:49 AM

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