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Looming Government Cuts "Unmitigated Disaster" for Life Sciences

02/28/2013
Megan Scudellari

It’s the eve of the sequester, and deep cuts to NIH and NSF budgets are likely to take effect on Friday. How will the cuts impact your funding? Find out...


There will be no chipper exclamations of “Thank God It’s Friday” this week as deep federal spending cuts known as the sequester are likely to go into effect tomorrow, March 1.

Original estimates cited across-the-board cuts of 8.2% for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Congress reduced the total 2013 federal spending cut from $109 billion to $85 billion in January, so the adjusted NIH reduction will now be 5.1%, according to NIH director Francis Collins. Each of the NIH's 27 institutes and centers will be affected in some way. “Everything will take a hit,” said Collins at a press conference last week. The NSF is also expecting a 5% budget cut.

President Obama highlights the impact of automatic budget cuts on jobs if Congressional Republicans fail to compromise to avert the sequester. Source: WhiteHouse.gov




The sequester was originally scheduled to go into effect on January 2, but Congress gave itself a two-month delay for additional negotiations. Unfortunately, little progress has been made since then, and the cuts now seem inevitable: “It’s going to happen,” Jim Jordan, a Republican congressman from Ohio, told the New York Times.

The cuts will affect life sciences research and put the careers of young scientists in jeopardy, according to Trudy Mackay, a distinguished professor of genetics at North Carolina State University (NCSU). “We won’t be able to do the work,” she said. “It’s a short-sighted, unmitigated disaster.”

If the sequester does happen, the NSF will fund 1000 fewer grants, according to Ars Technica. The NIH has announced that continuing grants "likely will not reach" the full commitment level in fiscal year 2013 and that fewer new grants will be awarded. Even grants that score top reviews from funding panels may not be funded.

For example, last year Mackay received top reviews for a grant proposal to study the gene expression networks of a population of fruit flies that live two to three times longer than normal flies. “We got great reviews. This could have huge impacts in human quality of life,” she said. But now, she no longer expects the grant to be funded.

Scaling Back, Reducing Personnel

Robert Anholt, also a geneticist at NCSU, has several NIH grants whose budgets were already cut due to NIH reductions last year, including a grant with a perfect score. Additional cuts would force him to scale back his projects, reducing their overall impact.

He also expects to have to reduce personnel. “Some members of the group will no longer have a job in a few months,” said Anholt. And he is not taking on any new graduate students this year. “I can’t afford them.”

Even 2009 Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine Carol Greider said at the press conference with Collins last week that her own number of NIH grants dropped from four to two in the last two years. As a result, she has cut her number of trainees in half.

“If a Nobel Laureate is worried, those of us who are just starting should be sweating bullets,” said Christopher Hurt, a new assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “Hopefully it will all sort out, but I’m of little faith.”

In November, Hurt received a near-perfect score on his resubmission of an NIH Career Development Award, but has yet to hear from the NIH. His salary and research have been paid for by an UNC institutional grant since Hurt became a professor in 2011, but that grant runs out in April. “I’m kind of in limbo,” said Hurt.

“This is extremely troublesome for young investigators,” says Anholt. “Their careers are in jeopardy, and this sends a bad message for future students who might want to go into science.”

So is there any chance of preventing the sequester? Not really. President Obama has scheduled a Friday meeting with congressional leaders at the White House to discuss avoiding the fallout. If those talks fail, which seems likely, the White House must direct the government to begin the sequester by 11:59pm on Friday.

For more details about the sequester, check out ScienceInsider’s “Sequestration: A Primer for the Perplexed.”

Keywords:  NIH funding