LA JOLLA — Biology Prof. Dan L. Lindsley may be one of the first casualties of Reagan Administration cutbacks in money for basic scientific research, a reduction that the academic community warns could irreparably damage the nation's future.
Lindsley, a longtime member of the UC San Diego Department of Biology, has been told that his federal grant to continue a decade of study on the genetics of male fertility will not be renewed for the next three years.
Lindsley has two post-doctoral students, a research biologist and a lab technician all dependent on the grant for salaries. As a result, they may soon be out of work unless Congress overrules the President and provides additional funds to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Federal funds, mainly from NIH, support almost 95% of non-military basic scientific research nationwide.
"The proposal is killing me," Lindsley said. "Some very good people are going to get their funds withheld . . . a lot of bright young scientists will get chopped off at the ankles."
The Reagan proposal would slice to 5,000 from 6,526 the number of individual grants the NIH makes available to researchers in the next fiscal year. The executive Office of Management and Budget has further directed that only 5,000 grants be funded during the current fiscal year despite congressional authorization for the 6,500, and that the money saved be used to help cover research during the next three years.
"We are headed for some deep, deep trouble at our major universities, which turn out 80% of our Ph.D.s in science," said UCSD biology Prof. William McElroy, former director of the National Science Foundation and former chancellor of UCSD. "Without a long-term commitment to continuing such funding, we're going to lose promising students, technicians and ultimately affect our future economy based on high technology."
UCSD is among the nation's top five universities in terms of federally funded science projects.
A staff aide to the Senate subcommittee authorizing health funds called the concerns of scientists, which have been expressed nationwide, "very, very justified."
"The proposed budget is a significant drop in support," said the aide, who works for Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), the subcommittee chairman. "Whereas in 1980, 52% of all project proposals judged eligible for money were funded, only 29% would be funded under the Reagan proposal." (An average grant is $140,000 and is awarded for three years, according to an NIH spokesman.)
At a hearing in Washington on the budget Tuesday, Weicker told Margaret Heckler, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, that he objected to a total federal government research budget of $60 billion that goes 70% to defense and less than 8% to health sciences. The proposed NIH budget totals $4.85 billion compared to $5.1 billion this year.
"But it's too early to tell what will happen on Capitol Hill (in terms of providing funding beyond the President's request)," Weicker's aide said.
Administration spokesmen have argued that the austere budgets will not harm quality research but will force the scientific community to cut down on marginal projects.
"But the proposal is not the best way of doing that if the intent is truly to do that," Clifford Grobstein, UCSD professor of biological science and public policy, said. "It seems the goal is simply to cut (NIH) as part of dealing with the federal deficit."
The result of the cuts would be immediate in terminating graduate students and technicians, Herbert Stern, chairman of the biology department, said. Out of five professors in the biology department whose grants already are up for NIH renewal, three--including Lindsley--have been told that they probably will not be funded again.
"And there would be a long-term serious psychological effect on those people who have devoted their life to research," Stern said. "Academics is tied to research and scholarly study, and there would be a serious weakening of the whole tempo of university life."
Stern said that research proposals cannot be judged as easily as Reagan Administration officials would like. He recalled a colleague who, as head of the National Cancer Institute, once drew up precise plans for solving the cancer puzzle and determined to direct funding only to projects in line with the plans.
"Those plans would be laughed at as the work of some idiot today," Stern said. "What that means is, while you can fairly easily judge a project on pure quality, it's very hard to try and determine the future relevance of a project."
For that reason, biotechnology companies would be unlikely to pick up a major share of the basic research burden.
"We don't tend to finance long-term abstract research," said Ray W. McKewon, general partner of EMC II Venture Partners, which raises capital for biotechnology companies. "A project to determine how bacteria replicates might be wonderful, but I'd be shot as a businessman for funding things like that.
"Yet, if not for such projects, genetic engineering wouldn't have been born. I would hate to see government funding become so severe that scientists can't ask seemingly esoteric questions that can lead to breathtaking, highly commercial results.