Shutdown Grabs Headlines, But Sequestration Does Real Damage
Adapted from a story that originally appeared on the Alzheimer Research Forum.
October 21, 2013. After weeks of political brinkmanship, the government shutdown is coming to an end, but non-government scientists who depend on federal research dollars say they have faced a bigger threat all along. The real problem is the sequester. Government-wide sequestration began last March and brought an across-the-board, 5 percent cut to the fiscal 2013 budget of National Institutes of Health (NIH). The cut reduced research grants and stiffened competition for already-dwindling funds. “Sequestration just adds another nail in the research coffin,” said Gary Landreth, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. “We’ve already trimmed all the fat, and now we’re cutting into the meat.”
Although Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research has seen recent injections of funds for selected projects, the National Institute on Aging, which funds the majority of this research, has undergone a recent budget squeeze, making it harder for researchers to get funding. The additional 5 percent taken by the sequester hit deep. “Our budgets are tight to begin with,” said Paul Aisen, University of California, San Diego, who directs the multicenter Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study. “The sequester has created a significant shortfall in our long-term budget projections.” ADCS researchers may have to limit the number of participants in trials, or reduce study procedures, he said. Michael Weiner, UC San Francisco, who heads the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, said that ADNI similarly may have to reduce payments to subcontractors or cut participant visits.
Other researchers raised concerns about their own labs. “My biggest problem is paying to maintain research animals,” said Karen Duff, Columbia University, New York. The transgenic mouse colonies Duff uses to study Alzheimer’s typically cost $18,000 each month. Shrinking funds have forced her to switch to cell cultures, but that comes at a scientific cost: Researchers know that whole animals more realistically mimic human conditions. “I want to continue human-relevant experiments, but I can’t afford it,” Duff told Alzforum. Cynthia Lemere, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, echoed those concerns. “These cuts mean that we have to abandon some experiments listed in our original grant proposal,” she said. Lemere’s lab will have to forgo purchasing new equipment. For Donna Wilcock’s lab at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, the sequester cuts will delay immunotherapy studies with transgenic mice until next year’s money comes in. Wilcock studies how anti-Aβ immunotherapy influences inflammation and vascular events in the brain. Many researchers lamented their inability to take on new graduate students this year and having to lay off talented students.
In addition to cutting funded grants, the sequester has trimmed the number of new NIH grants by almost 8 percent, meaning that about 650 grants that would have been funded in 2012 will go unfunded this year. “The percentage of grants that get funded has dwindled to minuscule numbers,” said Dave Morgan, University of South Florida, Tampa. As a result, some researchers have had to pack up and leave, he said.
“I have never seen such a high level of lab closures,” Duff agreed. One scientist she knows has already shut down his lab, while three more have received notices of impending termination due to lack of funding. “Departments and colleagues are doing what they can to help, but even if financially strapped investigators eventually secure enough funding to continue, their labs and work have already been destabilized and their productivity is likely to be reduced for years,” Duff said.
Many academic researchers in the United States receive little funding from their host institute and need research grants to survive. “For researchers living on the edge financially, the sequester cuts could tip them over,” Landreth said. Likewise, Weiner noted that several prominent investigators recently lost funding and retired early, and some promising assistant professors are struggling to advance their research. Both Duff and Weiner declined to name their colleagues. One scientist lamented that several longitudinal, observational, human AD studies had been halted in the limited funding climate. While some privately suggested that this amounted to necessary culling—weeding out less-productive science—Landreth insisted the field was now past that. “Some of the best scientists are not being funded now,” he said.
Sources agreed, however, that steep competition for dwindling funds results in more grant writing and less science. “We have to do so much extra work writing and reviewing grants that it takes away from our main purpose of doing research and curing these diseases,” said Duff. Jennifer Weuve, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, added that the sequester has intensified competition. “Since we are all so panicked about these limited resources, we are submitting more grants,” she said.
The broader issues
Funding cuts will hit universities, too, predicted David Cribbs, UC, Irvine. For instance, shared infrastructure, such as communal houses for experimental animals, will lose support. Because of uncertain funding, Case Western’s animal behavioral core is already gone, Landreth said.
Experts interviewed for this article emphasized that the sequester discourages young researchers from entering the AD field. “We could lose a generation of scientists over this,” said Wilcock. Fledgling talent is choosing more lucrative areas of scientific study, or considering careers in law, medicine, or business. Some may follow the money to other countries, such as Singapore and China, which better support AD research, said Cribbs. “Those countries will produce the next great crop of scientists,” he told Alzforum. A postdoctoral student Cribbs almost had to lay off due to budget shortfalls recently got a faculty position in Brazil.
Others warned that the United States will lose its leadership role in international biomedical research. “Basic research funding is increasing in Europe and Asia, while U.S. funding levels are flat or have fallen,” said George Vradenburg of the Washington, DC, advocacy group USAgainstAlzheimer’s. The sequester, the shutdown, and the associated partisan politics are exacerbating this trend and shifting emphasis on innovation in biomedical research to other countries, he said. Nobel laureates echoed this concern in a recent piece on National Public Radio’s “On Point.” The dire warnings are not unanimous, however. Weiner contends that even with AD research ramping up around the world, the United States still leads, and that the funding squeeze may actually make the country even more competitive, as only top science will be funded. “If there is any upside, I have noticed that the field is getting more streamlined and sophisticated in what we think is good science,” said Duff, adding that she wished it was not at the expense of people’s careers. Funding fluctuations tend to be cyclical, she pointed out; today the NIA’s percentage of the total NIH budget is the lowest it’s been since 1990, according to one report. As the economy recovers from the recent recession, “hopefully good times are ahead,” said Weiner.
Seeking a solution
With federal funding levels remaining low, researchers are getting creative about where they seek support. Lemere, for instance, has applied to companies such as GE for corporate sponsorship, as well as to foundations and federal science agencies outside the NIH. Other researchers have applied for grants from the American Federation for Aging Research, BrightFocus (formerly the American Health Assistance Foundation), and the American Heart Association. These tend to offer smaller grants that span shorter periods of time than NIH funds, but they help pay the bills. “You just have to keep looking for whatever opportunities are out there,” said Lemere.
Some scientists proposed that the NIH could take certain steps to stabilize the system. For instance, it could mandate that institutions pay a defined fraction of researchers’ salaries, suggested Benjamin Wolozin, Boston University. That would restrict the number of researchers competing for funds, because institutions would hire a limited number of scientists. Ups and downs in funding would then affect research money available to each laboratory, rather than individual faculty positions, he explained. “The result would a more stable scientific enterprise,” Wolozin said.
Duff suggested instead that the NIH agree on a standard, reasonable overhead—the percentage of grant funds paid to universities hosting an awardee. Doing so would make grants less expensive for the NIH. In March, a coalition of large universities defeated an attempt by the Obama administration to set a flat overhead rate. Duff also suggested that departments step up mentoring for young investigators, for example by asking experienced faculty members to polish their grants before submission. “With the added competition, you need to rethink how you help people do the best science and secure funding,” she said.
While the situation seems grim for new investigators, some maintain an optimistic outlook. Daniel Wesson, an assistant professor at Case Western, is working toward his first research project grant from the NIH, which he needs within the next three or four years to get his lab on its feet. The increasingly limited funding “makes me seriously prioritize everything I plan on doing in the next few years,” he said. However, he refuses to be discouraged from his goal of learning more about how the brain works.
Until Congress passes an appropriations bill for fiscal 2014, it is unclear how much money the NIH will have to distribute for extramural research grants. President Obama requested $31.3 billion for the NIH in his FY2014 budget proposal—a 1.5 percent increase above the budget for 2012 and a 0.8 percent rise from the 2013 continuing resolution levels, which do not include the sequester cuts.—Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib.