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Scientists worry sequester puts American research prowess at risk

March 21, 2013|Alana Semuels
  • Scientists worry cuts to labs such as the one at the National Cancer Institute could have a long-term effect.
Scientists worry cuts to labs such as the one at the National Cancer Institute… (Getty Images )

New York — The American scientific community is at one of the most exciting junctures in modern science; able to sequence the human genome, and with the help of advanced computers, researchers are making more progress each day on curing or preventing a variety of diseases.

But much of this progress is being slowed -- or stopped entirely -- because of the government budget cuts known as sequestration, scientists say.

About $1.6 billion has been cut from the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the biggest supporter of biomedical research in the world, which provides funding for research grants in hospitals and universities around the country. That’s a big blow to an institution that is funding labs on the cusp of creating a universal influenza vaccine, figuring out how mutations in DNA causes cancer to become malignant, and understanding more about Alzheimer’s disease, said Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s director.

“It is a paradoxical thing that we are both at a time of remarkable and almost unprecedented scientific opportunity, and we’re also at a time in the United States of unprecedented threats to the momentum of scientific progress,” he said, in a call with journalists.

This could cause economic pains too, now and in the future. NIH-funded discoveries contribute to the nation’s booming biomedical industry, a sector that exports $90 billion a year, and employs a million citizens. The government's $4-billion investment in the Human Genome Project, for example, helped create $796 billion in economic growth from 2000-2010, the NIH estimates. Every $1 of NIH funding generates $2.20 in economic growth, the government says.

Johns Hopkins University is already feeling the pain. The major research university is expecting $40 million in funding cuts from the NIH this year, which means that labs that employ 10 to 20 people will now have to cut a few workers, said Scott Zeger, vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins, in an interview.

“There’s a realization that we are at this breakthrough moment, and the worst thing America can be doing is creating uncertainty about our commitment to bioscience,” Zeger said.

The university will also have to cut physics research as funding from NASA and the Defense Department is also cut. This means cuts to programs such as those that use genome sequencing to better understand who is at risk for certain diseases.

“America is in a leadership position here, and we have people from around the world, graduate students and postdocs, coming to make their careers,” Zeger said. “But what the sequester is doing is creating uncertainty in the future. They’re wondering whether America is the right place to do work.”

These students and their research will “drive the economies of the coming century,” Zeger said.

And as America cuts its funding for science research, countries such as Dubai, Brazil, India and China are increasing theirs. Even countries such as Germany and the UK, which are facing budget problems of their own, are increasing their research funding, said Collins.

Graduate students who come to America from other countries to do research are already seeing what happens when the U.S. cuts its science budgets. The chance of getting a grant from the NIH has already dropped from one in three to one in six since 2003, Collins said. The sequester will make it drop even more.

Collins worries that young scientists, seeing this, will decide to embark on a new career, or will decide to leave America for somewhere that research dollars are flowing.

“I worry deeply that we are putting an entire generation of scientists at risk by the very significant difficulty they see in obtaining support,” Collins said.

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