Federal funding cuts stretch researchers to the limit
Zachary Reinert, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, said he tried to keep an open mind.
When he started graduate school in the Department of Chemistry, he tried to stay open to many career options. But having watched his boss struggle for money to keep the research team going — each grant application taking months to prepare and months more to get an answer — Reinert turned away from academia.
“My boss works on funding about 75 percent of the year,” said Reinert, 26, a Bloomfield resident.
Last summer, he took an internship with a German chemical company and settled into a career path toward industry rather than academic research. Lawmakers, academics and private foundations worry that a growing number of young researchers like Reinert, who came of age during the federal budget sequestration, are giving up on public research before they begin.
“Once it's happened, you don't get these guys back,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.
Doyle is among a number of top lawmakers, including President Obama, who warn that sequestration — the budgetary doomsday device meant to force bipartisan budget compromise — is costing the United States its leadership in global research.
Grants to Pittsburgh universities and hospital systems from four of the largest federal grant agencies — the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the departments of Defense and Energy — were $127 million lower in 2014 than 10 years earlier when adjusted for inflation, according to a Tribune-Review analysis of federal spending data.
Researchers say the problems go deeper than sequestration.
“The sequester was certainly a big impact, but the NIH budget has been (increasing) below the rate of inflation for more than a decade now,” said Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor of science strategy and planning at Pitt and a former NIH official. “It's stretching everything to the limit.”
For small-government conservatives like Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, the problem is not cuts, but the inflexibility that federal agencies have to implement them within their budgets.
Toomey is “glad the (most recent budget), while flawed, held the line on spending,” and he supports giving agencies more authority to manage the cuts, spokeswoman E.R. Anderson said.
Pitt administrators responded to sequestration by rearranging budgets to make room for so-called “bridge funding” to keep labs open and research projects alive during gaps between grants.
“More people are needing bridge funding now because it is harder to get federal dollars,” said Mark Redfern, vice provost for research at Pitt. “If you shut down a laboratory, you can't get it going again.”
That funding was “critical” to keeping alive Pitt medical professor Bruce Rollman's research into links between heart disease and mental health, Rollman said. His NIH grant ran out in 2010 after three years of attempts to renew it.
To make the bridge funding last, Rollman laid off 12 people, spent the honoraria from his lectures on research, and took on more classes and clinic time to make up for the salary that used to come from the NIH grant. He continued a pared version of his research, which eventually led to another grant large enough to revive the project.
“I've been at Pitt for 20 years, and it's been my only dry spell. It was a challenging year and a half,” Rollman said.
Researchers are increasingly turning to private foundations to replace lost federal dollars. However, “there is no way that the not-for-profits can make that up,” said David Pugach, lobbyist for the American Cancer Society.
The cancer society spends about $25 million a year on research projects in Pennsylvania. Nationwide, it awarded $177.5 million in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available.
The drop in NIH funding in Pennsylvania from 2012 to 2013 — $105 million — is four times more than the cancer society's total spending in the state. The drop in NIH spending nationwide — $1.3 billion — is more than seven times larger than the society's research spending.
Basic scientific research gets hit the hardest because corporations and foundations more eagerly fund applied research — projects related to developing something tangible or marketable, said Robert Conn, CEO and president of the Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, Calif. The foundation gives unrestricted gifts that researchers can use for basic science.
An applied science researcher can tell the grantor where the research will lead, such as a stronger building material or a more effective cancer treatment. But basic science researchers can rarely say what their research will help result in, whom it will save or how it will make money.
Albert Einstein was not trying to build a nuclear reactor when he revealed the relationship between mass and energy. It took decades to realize how E=MC² changed the world.
“Einstein might apply for a grant today and not get it,” Conn said. “So many of the things that help people are built on the shoulders of basic scientific discovery.”
Among those things is the robotic arm tested by a quadriplegic Whitehall woman.
As part of a study at Pitt, Jan Scheurmann used a prosthetic device that she was able to move with her thoughts. Scientists on the project relied on 30 years of basic scientific research, said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees many scientific grant-making agencies.
“We're funding one out of every five merit-based applications. All five were deemed to be worthy, but we were able to fund only one,” Fattah said.
Peggy Rosenzweig, associate professor of nursing at Pitt, needed foundations to support her pilot program to increase the proportion of black women with breast cancer who undergo chemotherapy.
It worked, she said, but the search for more money to go beyond the pilot program became a consuming process.
“We're always looking for grants. ... When you're doing the research, you're thinking, ‘What is the direction the research could go? What would be a grant mechanism?' ” Rosenzweig said.
A five-year grant from the cancer society allowed her to extend the program.
“I (couldn't) continue to do that work independently,” Rosenzweig said.
Before sequestration, Congress was able to finagle more research funding by running it through the Department of Defense, because it's politically difficult for legislators to say no to Defense spending, Fattah said. But sequestration caps Defense spending as well.
“It's a difficult process because you have a public that's been told you can have the greatest country in the world, but they can do it on the cheap,” he said. “We need to be funding our basic science, and we should not think we are going to fix it by moving dollars over to DOD.”
Most of the 16 percent drop in federal research funding since 2010 came from Defense, said Matthew Hourihan, director of the Research and Development Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Non-Defense-funded research during that time is down 5 percent, he said.
Europe, meanwhile, maintained its research spending levels, and many Asian countries — particularly China and Taiwan — are expanding their research budgets. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts China will surpass U.S. research and development spending within five years.
“What we've seen in the long run is a steady erosion of science. It's been on its way down since the space race,” Hourihan said. “Public research dollars do help lay a foundation, and that foundation has been declining.”
Megha Satyanarayana contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.