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Taking Budget Cuts to the Public

Dwindling federal spending on biomedical research, through appropriations that have eroded over the last decade due to inflation or under the fiscal meat cleaver of the sequestration, is hitting home in research labs around the country, a group of researchers brought together by United for Medical Research said yesterday.

Investigators are spending loads more time writing and rewriting grants to compete for fewer NIH dollars, are trimming down their staffs due to grants that were cut back or lost, and even delaying or canceling planned experiments.

These stories have become almost normal, day-to-day gripes in the research community, but UMR says the public has not been seeing it, and has pulled together several 'profile' stories to let voters know how budget battles have actually been affecting research.

When lawmakers in Washington throw around numbers like $1.6 billion, roughly the amount of the sequestration cuts lopped from the NIH budget this last year, it can sound a bit "abstract," UMR President Carrie Wolinetz says.

What the public needs is a picture of what the funding cuts are doing, UMR says.

University of California, San Francisco, cancer researcher Valerie Weaver worries about the impact the budget cuts will have on the next generation of scientists. She says she has been forced to let contracts for three staff members expire, has delayed hiring three researchers, and has seen two postdoctoral students leave the US to take jobs overseas.

"The only people I can take are those with their own funding. Each year, you get less and less, and you are asked to do more and more and more," she says. "And you try to get more creative, but wonder what you are supposed to do."

Jake Lusis, director of the Mouse Metabolic Syndrome Phenotype Facility at the University of California, Los Angeles, says he went three decades without any layoffs, but recently he has had to cut two people, including one person he has worked with for more than 10 years.

Also due to tight funding, he also has slimmed down his mouse population and has lowered his commitment to training grad students and postdocs.

"We're doing everything we can to get by. Right now, I think the biggest danger is that young people in science aren't going to pursue this path, and who can blame them?

"When you have to be in the top 5 [percent to] 10 percent of all applicants, and all the applicants are of very high quality, you obviously get a feeling of hopelessness," he adds. "It's a very dark time for them."

Additionally, Donald Small, a pediatric oncologist at Johns Hopkins University's Sidney Kimmel cancer center, worries about the scientists, but he also wants the public to know that patients will eventually feel the results of budget cuts and sequestration, whether there is a clear link between scientific delays and specific clinical outcomes or not.

"The improvement in cure rate and reduction in side effects for children with cancer is going to be slowed down because it's only through this kind of research we are going to make a difference. To me, it's just devastating," he says.