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.”
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.
“I think there is concern among graduate students and post-docs about the futures of their careers,” Herman said.
That may be an understatement.
“I could make more money as a house painter,” said Casey Dorr, a postdoctoral fellow at the U’s Masonic Cancer Center and Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s health. Dorr, 32, said he earns in the “high $30,000 range” after spending 11 years in higher education.
Dorr is trying to discover the genetic causes of lung cancer and wants to remain in academia, which tolerates failures on the road to innovation. Industry is more product-driven, he said. “But at this point in my life, I’d rather just have a job and a retirement plan.”
Openings for professorships are rare, attract hundreds of applicants, and take too long to mature, Dorr said.
“If I wanted to be a tenured professor, I’m looking at at least 10 years from now, and I must have great successes all the way,” he said. “The guy I share an office with has been a postdoc for 11 years.”
Sachs, the molecular biophysicist, said he had to abandon a project that peer evaluators scored in the top 20 percent grant proposals despite rave reviews. The project involved a discovery about engineered molecular polymers, which are used as artificial viruses to target cancers and cystic fibrosis.
“I had to give up because I didn’t have money to pay the students to do the work … to try to get [the grant proposal] from 20 percent to 10 percent” on NIH’s ranking system, he said. “It’s just the luck of the draw.”
That’s not sour grapes. NIH evaluators have a hard time distinguishing between projects ranked in the top 20 percent, Collins said. For decades, about 30 percent of NIH grant proposals won approval, but that’s been declining since 2003.
Cynthia Harley, 32, a postdoctoral associate at the U’s entomology department, studies how networks of neurons work by focusing on medicinal leeches.
“Needless to say, leeches are not a popular model organism,” she said. But their simpler nervous system makes them good study subjects for brain research.
Unfortunately, Harley said, budget cuts hit harder on projects like hers. The NSF section where she submits her grant proposals is funding fewer than 4 percent of them, she said.
“Many of my peers have turned to systems thought to be more marketable, like mice,” Harley said.
An assistant professor at the U’s medical school, who asked not to be identified, said she advises students to think hard before pursuing a career in academic research. The lab where she works with genetically engineered mice used to have 30 people, including grad students, post-docs and research associates, she said. Now it’s down to just two — and they are working for three-quarters’ salary because their latest grant request wasn’t funded and the U chose not to support the lab any longer.
Another scientist, she said, got laid off from another lab a few months ago and still hasn’t found work. “He’s getting food stamps,” she said. “It made me cry.”
Kamil Ugurbil, who runs an internationally famous MRI center at the U, says he advised his own college-bound daughter that she might not want to pursue a career in neuroscience research.
Ugurbil is one of the lead scientists in planning the initiative to map the human brain. He said he congratulated Jonathan Sachs for speaking out at Klobuchar’s round-table.
“It was a perfect comment,” Ugurbil said.
Ugurbil, who immigrated from Turkey, said countries around the world saw what scientific research did to propel the U.S. economy and quality of life, and they are emulating that strategy by increasing their own expenditures and trying to recruit their expatriates who came to the United States for training.
“This country, we are known for our creativity. We are known for our research. But if this current state stays, that is not going to be the case a decade from now,” Ugurbil said. “We are demoralized.”