The sequester's huge impact on biomedical research

It's a recurring nightmare for Puget Sound scientists.
Drew Atkins |   December 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Savas Keskiner
Research Question. What great advance will the cutback in funding preclude?

ranked as a top recipient of NIH funding among independent research institutions — was founded in Seattle. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was inspired by the global health work already occurring in Microsoft’s backyard, Cohen argues.

However, unlike places with well-established startup communities — such as parts of California — Slattery says, “The Puget Sound [region] has not yet reached critical mass of startup-capable people. A few people leaving will have a big impact. Our area gets richer by attracting and retaining as many of those people as we can.”

If top foreign scientists decide not to come to Washington or bright young minds believe a career in biomedical research has become too unstable, the foundations of the innovation economy grow shakier. Post-doc and graduate students are among the hardest hit by the sequestration, Slattery confirms. Cohen adds that among the dozens of biotech organizations she has surveyed, most are laying people off, doing less hiring or both.

“We risk losing young, promising researchers who have trained at our most prestigious universities to be world-class scientists,” says Larry Corey, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who notes that 70 percent of the Hutch’s funding comes from NIH. “Most of these people have spent over a decade in this training and face leaving their chosen field forever because of lack of such funding.”

That funding is not beyond saving, though a toxic Congressional environment makes it difficult. U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, has spoken out against the NIH cuts, as has U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. U.S. Representative Dave Reichert , R-Auburn, was an outspoken advocate for increased NIH funding in the past but has been relatively quiet about the sequestration cuts, perhaps because the 2014 House Republican budget proposes doubling the cuts from the 5.1 percent trimmed under the sequester to more than 10 percent.

To some on the right, such as the Heritage Foundation’s T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd, NIH budget cuts will simply force the organization to eliminate inefficiencies, that is, do more with less. Those in the biomedical industry call this view mistaken. Slattery and others describe the NIH grant process as becoming more arduous and competitive every year.

Despite the situation, Slattery portrays the attitude at the UW and other research institutions as guardedly optimistic. For now.

“You can’t be a pessimist if you’re a research scientist. You have to be realistic, but also optimistic in some ways,” says Slattery. “You have to believe a breakthrough is possible. ... You just have to hope that people will understand how important this is and that private funding can’t fill the gaps. You hope that things will become more predictable and smarter, even if the evidence sometimes says the opposite.”

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