Add To Sequestration's Human Toll 1,000 Fewer Funded Science Researchers

Add To Sequestration's Human Toll 1,000 Fewer Funded Scientists
President Barack Obama peers into a microscope during a tour of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
President Barack Obama peers into a microscope during a tour of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

WASHINGTON -- The cost of federal budget cuts on scientific research has been measured predominantly in dollar amounts and grants unfunded. To get a sense of the human toll, you have to dig a bit and interview the scientists who can detail the adjustments they’ve had to make since their financial spigots were turned off. But even that will give you only a partial view of the impact of austerity, for it’s still unclear how many scientists are actually affected.

This past week, Jeremy Berg, president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, tried to find that number. Using publicly available data, he concluded that the budget cuts brought about by sequestration resulted in 1,001 fewer investigators who had National Institutes of Health funding through standard research mechanisms in fiscal year 2013. The year prior, the number of funded investigators had dropped just 150 (mostly due to stagnant budgets) -- which shows just how dramatically the $1.55 billion sequestration cut hit the agency.

A recently agreed-to appropriations bill restores a chunk, but not all, of the moneys lost to sequestration. But members of the scientific research community fear that the damage already done will have long-lasting ripple effects, primarily in discouraging a new generation of scientists from entering the field.

“The part of it that scares me the most is the indirect effect: the young people coming into the system, thinking about going into the system in the first place, and they are sitting there watching talented scientists going years without funding or just always writing grant proposals,” said Berg, who has served as a director of one of the NIH’s institutes. “You have their students watching them doing that and saying, ‘Boy, that doesn’t look like a good way to spend my life.’”

NIH officials, including the agency's current director, Dr. Francis Collins, have expressed similar concerns. According to their own data, there were 605 fewer funded investigators just because of cuts to R01 grants (the most common type of grant awarded by the NIH). Berg examined a wider universe of grants in order to get to his 1,001 figure.

What he found was that the number of investigators with funding from all R-series grants awarded by the NIH went from 26,362 in fiscal year 2012 to 25,361 in fiscal year 2013. Part of the decrease was due to the fact that fewer applications were filed. According to the NIH, the number of research grant applications dropped from 63,524 in fiscal year 2012 to 61,013 in fiscal year 2013.

But that only told part of the story, said Berg. The number of grant applications “were down a little bit, but not a lot,” he said. “It is mostly that NIH doesn’t have the money to fund worthwhile projects.”

Not everyone who lost out on an NIH grant went unfunded. As Berg noted, researchers often have other grants with which to work. Some can turn to their universities or medical schools for bridge funds until they obtain additional NIH support. A portion of those who lost funding may have retired from the field.

But the 3.8 percent drop in the number of investigators receiving NIH funding undoubtedly included people who were dependent on the agency for career survival.

“Something we will know a year or two for now is how many disappeared ended up reappearing,” said Berg.

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