Tight budgets put the squeeze on promising medical research

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2013 - 10:40 AM

U researchers warn of a “lost generation” of scientists who abandon research work.

To confront the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease and the cascading medical challenges of an aging population, America will need scientists like Tonya Taylor. At 29, she holds a chemistry degree from Duke, a doctorate from Emory, did postdoctorate work at Oxford University and is now working at the University of Minnesota with one of the nation’s leading researchers in degenerative nerve diseases.

But she’s thinking about abandoning her plans for a career in medical research.

“I’ve applied for at least four [research] grants in the past year and haven’t gotten any,” Taylor said last week. “It’s definitely made me consider leaving academia.”

A decade of flat federal funding for biomedical research, together with pending cuts from the federal budget sequester, are eviscerating research labs, killing promising investigations and pushing bright young minds to consider new lines of work, some of Minnesota’s top scientists say.

The U, for example, could lose $50 million of its $750 million federal research budget in the next couple of years.

“This is a perilous moment for the NIH and indeed for the future of biomedical research in this country,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said at a May hearing on the National Institutes of Health, the largest single source of federal biomedical research funding.

The federal sequester, Harkin said, resulted in 700 fewer new research grants this year than in 2012. “That means 700 fewer opportunities to investigate and possibly find the cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s and diabetes and any number of diseases.”

Grant approvals, he added, are now at the “lowest level in the history of NIH.”

The angst and discontent roiling the biomedical research community spilled into public view recently when Sen. Amy Klobuchar organized a round-table at the university to discuss a mammoth new initiative to map the neurons of the human brain.

Associate Prof. Jonathan Sachs, a molecular biophysicist, took the opportunity to plead for money for basic research. Federal funding is so tight and so competitive, he said, that academic scientists now spend the bulk of their time in their offices polishing proposals rather than conducting research in their labs.

“We are facing a massive crisis … we can’t train the next generation of scientists,” Sachs told Klobuchar. The gap, he added, “is going to be filled by young scientists in India, young scientists in China, and young scientists throughout the world where the government has the bravery to fund science.”

The NIH, with an annual budget of about $30 billion, is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. Dr. Francis Collins, known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, heads the NIH and recently warned a Senate subcommittee that countries such as China and India have been ramping up their investments in biomedical research while the NIH budget — essentially flatlined since 2003 — has seen inflation erode its purchasing power by about 22 percent.

The United States now spends less on R&D, as a percentage of its GDP, than Israel, Japan, Korea, Sweden and Switzerland, he said.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said China increased its basic research budget by 26 percent last year and plans to spend $300 billion on biotechnology research over the next five years. In the United States, he said, “We risk losing a generation of scientists.”

Painting houses?

A Star Tribune analysis found that Minnesota collected more than $7 billion in NIH grants from 1992 through 2012. The U was by far the top recipient, at $4 billion, followed by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, at $2.56 billion.

The U ranks eighth among U.S. public research universities. About 70 percent of its federal grant money comes from the NIH and the National Science Foundation. Last year, it got $257 million from NIH and $68 million from NSF.

Dr. Brian Herman, the U’s vice president of research, said other federal agencies also are slashing research budgets. He said NASA, for instance, is on pace to drop to its lowest level since 1988. The NSF’s budget declined 24 percent between 2009 and 2012.

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  • Jonathan Sachs, left, a molecular biologist at the U, worked with Ph.D. candidate Anthony Braun.

  • Associate Prof. Jonathan Sachs, right, worked with Ph.D. candidate Andrew Lewis.

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