A Scientist Laments The NIH Budget: I'm 'Bitter And Cynical' About The World I 'Wanted To Help'

A pedestrian walks near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. A storm along the U.S. East Coas
A pedestrian walks near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. A storm along the U.S. East Coast brought snow and wind chills to the region, disrupting travel amid highway closures and thousands of flight cancellations. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Disappointment with the funding levels for biomedical research in the budget deal has trickled down to the community of young scientists dependent on those funds for future projects.

The deal, which passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday and will likely sail through the Senate soon, sends $29.9 billion to the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2014. That's $1 billion more than NIH funding last year. But it's also $714 million less than NIH funding before sequestration cuts went into effect. Adjusted for inflation, it's smaller than all of President George W. Bush's NIH budgets, save for his first year in office.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who wants more money for the NIH, offered a positive take. "When you add it all up in terms of dollars for new grants for research, it will be apparently a new 384 or 385 grants," he told The Huffington Post.

That's nothing to scoff at, but it also doesn't fill the hole. According to the NIH, 640 fewer competitive research grants were funded in 2013 because of sequestration. For those entering the scientific fields -- which are already tilted toward more established scientists – seeing 255 grants basically wiped off the books is incredibly daunting.

Chris Spaeth, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is one of the daunted. Spaeth, who specializes in nervous system development, predicted that his type of work would be too "risky" to attract investment from a private firm.

"I am not trying to make a product or drug or find a novel gene with limited scope and expression to fix neurodegenerative diseases or repair broken axons," he said. "Instead, I am targeting major regulatory pathways that produce a devastating effect on individual [fruit] flies in order to better understand how and why future downstream targets may lead to an effect."

In other words, the results of his work could end up being a big moneymaker for a private sector biotech company, but not quickly enough to lure their backing. His future depends on federal funds.

Having seen the federal budget that came out of the joint Appropriations Committee, Spaeth is left wondering what kind of future he has. In a "cathartic" email to The Huffington Post, he wrote, "I am much more bitter and cynical of the world I initially wanted to help."

Here's a portion of that email:

In my 11 years in basic research, I have seen funding levels drop off a cliff, while the job market in basic research goes from bad to worse. Some days I think I made a mistake getting my PhD (6.5 years in graduate school). As I discussed with some of my colleagues, the process of getting a PhD fundamentally changes you as a person. I am much more bitter and cynical of the world I initially wanted to help. I can barely remember these feelings, but when I started my research career, I wanted to fundamentally and positively affect the human condition through discovering basic molecular mechanisms of diseases.

The PhD process itself is hard enough without other people telling me how much of a terrible thing it is. But now, I am vilified as a "taker" and a "lazy moocher" that is "dependent on government money." I am part of the 47% that the government "does not care about." Apparently, the 80-100 hours a week I am writing or doing experiments are not enough, and I wonder what would make me not "lazy." I wish I was hyperbolizing, but to stay alive in basic research, 80 hours is the minimum time someone needs to be working, just to have the right to get a paycheck that is much less than if I were in private industry because the money is so tight. As a result of my nearly all-consuming work schedule, I cannot imagine starting a family, nor do I have enough money to do so. In fact, at age 32, I have zero savings because I have devoted my time to basic science research, and I think my wife is extremely unhappy with our situation and my hours.

What can I do? I can't stay in basic research when the government that funds it is actively trying to choke off funding in a quest for the abstract concept of "deficit relief." Maybe I go find a company to work for and join the exodus of PhD level researchers out of academia. At some point, the NIH becomes a vestigial government organization that gets a budget too small to be useful. Private companies will have to take on the load of basic research, thus cutting their effective time to make product, and increasing their overhead costs. I imagine many of them could go out of business. In addition, new companies that spring up as a result of basic academic research from Universities will be stifled or prevented all together.

The collateral damage to all science fields will be immense, and will be worse at each successive level away from basic research into practical product design. In other words, for Biology, translational research will falter, which will lead to a failure of pre-clinical and then clinical studies. And finally, we will be dependent on other countries to fund research as our country shifts exclusively to a service economy. (These are my thoughts in my bleakest moments, but they tend to predominate lately. In some ways, my new normal is thinking bleak thoughts until they seem not so bad anymore).

The U.S. still invests more in research and development than any other country. But its position as a global leader has declined. And a recent study shows that private companies in America are spending less on R&D even as their counterparts across the world (but mainly in China and Japan) spend more.

The collective effect has been a spooked community of scientific researchers. During the lows of sequestration, many emailed HuffPost with stories and thoughts similar to Spaeth's. Some of them can be read here.



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