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Budget Cuts Endanger U.S. Role as World Leader in Biomedical Research

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Budget Cuts Endanger U.S. Role as World Leader in Biomedical Research

Jun 06, 2014

Federal funding for research and development has shrunk by 20% over the past three years, and biomedical researchers are feeling the strain. Wesley Sundquist, Ph.D., National Academies of Sciences member and professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, describes how the cuts are impacting scientists, their work, and the U.S.’s status as a world leader in biomedical research and innovation.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The science and research show is on The Scope.
Federal funding for scientific research and development has shrunk by 20% over the last 3 years and biomedical researchers are feeling the strain. My guest and professor of biochemistry, Dr. Sundquist, went to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of scientists across the country. Dr. Sundquist, would it be an exaggeration to say that biomedical research is in a crisis situation?

Dr. Sundquist: I think one should use words like crisis carefully, but I think that if you asked our young faculty, they would tell you that they feel that they're in a crisis situation, that we're losing very talented young people who absolutely have the ability to make major contributions to our understanding about how the world works that can be translated into real advances in healthcare or real innovation in communications, and so on and so forth. So, I think they would tell you that we're in a crisis and I think if your young people think you're in a crisis, you are.

Host: Would it be fair to say that most researchers here at the University of Utah and probably most major research universities, a lot of their research is funded from the National Institutes of Health?

Dr. Sundquist: That's correct. Most of the research, for example, at the University of Utah, School of Medicine in particular, comes from the National Institutes of Health, or N.I.H. The other major funder is the National Science Foundation, but it's significantly smaller.

Host: There have been some striking statistics that have come out that shows how funding has changed over the past few years.

Dr. Sundquist: Yes. So, the ASBNB amongst other organizations, has compiled numbers in real N.I.H. spending, and in the last decade, that's decreased by 20%. So, that has real and very detrimental impacts. If you envision your own salary going down 20% over the last 10 years, or you envision your household budget going down 20% over the last 10 years, then you have a picture of what's happening to biomedical research funding.

Host: What does that mean for the research enterprise? How does it change things?

Dr. Sundquist: Of course it has affects on every level. At the global level, it means that our country is less competitive and we are losing some of our best researchers to competitive positions elsewhere. At the more local level, it means that new professors that we hire are struggling to establish their labs because they don't have enough money to do their research, and so instead of spending time coming up with their most creative ideas, they're spending times writing grants and worrying about how they're going to pay salaries to people in their labs.
And then, at the earlier level, I can tell you in my own lab it has an impact on how graduate students and post-docs feel about continuing on in research. They see very good people struggling to get funding and they realize that this is a difficult road right now. These are people that we've invested a lot of money in, they're our sort of best and brightest, but we're also spent a lot of money training them. And so, every time we lose one it's a loss for our system, not just a personal loss.

Host: Are you personally worried about your research?

Dr. Sundquist: Yeah. I have a grant. That's a personal question, but I have a grant right now that got a score, it's the 8th percentile. So, that means that it scored above 92% of the grants. And, I will only find out this month if it gets funded or not. There is a chance that it won't get funded.

Host: Eighth percentile. Wow. And, how does that compare to in the past?

Dr. Sundquist: By and large, right now 90% of grants are getting rejected. So, 10% are getting funded, and that's as bad as it's been for 25 years. In a very real sense, it's worse than it's ever been because the situation 20 years ago, when it was that low, it rebounded quite quickly and N.I.H. was supported strongly through the next decade. But, for this decade, things have been going down for literally 12 years, and they're now down more than 20% than in real purchasing power. And, there's no immediate help on the horizon.

Host: So, you've personally seen kind of a shift in the culture of science? The way scientists think about their work and their place in it?

Dr. Sundquist: There's no question that when you go to a conference now, people spend half of their time talking about the funding climate and how to get funding for their labs, instead of talking about what are their best scientific ideas. And, that has absolutely changed in the 20 years that I've been going to conferences as an independent investigator.

Host: And, what's the fear of what might happen in the future?

Dr. Sundquist: A large number of countries are spending a substantially higher fraction of their GDPs on research, and we currently have an advantage. We still are, I think, the best place to do research in the world, but everybody has talented people. And so, there is a point at which if you don't invest in something, it doesn't matter how talented your people are or how good your system has been in the past, you will start to lose ground. And, I think that's already happening. And we don't want others to do poor science. We want ourselves to do the science we're capable of doing.

Host: Is there anything else you'd like to add to that?

Dr. Sundquist: This is an issue that people should care about across our society. Something of a devaluation of science has occurred that we should care about making decisions in a scientific fashion and scientific literacy, and we should care about our competitive position in the world, and also our ability to innovate in ways that deliver better healthcare or deliver better products to people.

Host: Is there something that other scientists can do or citizens can do if they also care about this problem?

Dr. Sundquist: So, one of the things that was kind of fun about going to the Hill, I don't have any delusions that we took over Capitol Hill, but I do think you get the sense that our system is a representative democracy that's responsive to what people think. And so, there are lots of valuable competing interests, but if people say we care about funding science and we care about the quality of research that our country does, if you tell your Congress person or your Senator that, they will respond. I would say, in my view for scientists, I think that having a coherent policy and sort of impact is best done through scientific societies.

Announcer: Interesting, informative, and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope, health sciences radio.