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

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 newstips@wnyc.org or send us a message on Facebook or Twitter @WNYC.