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Sequestration Budget Cuts Hit St. Louis Scientists

It has been just over three months since the federal spending cuts known as sequestration first took effect.

A handful of programs were spared — but not scientific research, which amounts to about $140 billion in annual government spending.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra found out, at universities here in St. Louis, some scientists are worried about what the budget cuts will mean for their research — and for their students.

"I had to let go of some science."

Rachel Delston now works at Confluence Life Sciences, a drug-discovery company. But before she landed her job at this St. Louis biotechnology start-up just a few weeks ago, Delston was a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University.

“I was working on breast cancer,” Delston said. “And I was really trying to answer one of the biggest questions in cancer research today.” That is, which genetic mutations drive the formation of tumors — and could be good targets for anti-cancer drugs. Delston says her research was going great. She was about two and half years into what was supposed to be a five-year project.

“So you’re really just at the heart of the project, right in the middle of it, right in the thick of it,” Delston said. “And it was a real shock to get laid off.”

Delston lost her job because the National Institutes of Health didn’t renew the grant that was supporting her research.

Her former boss, Washington University cancer biologist Jason Weber, blames sequestration for the loss of funding. He had the bad luck to have all three of his federal grants come up for renewal this year. None of them got funded.

“I had to let go of some folks, and I had to let go of some science,” Weber said. Six months ago, Weber’s lab supported about a dozen researchers and graduate students. Now he’s down to fewer than half that.

He says Delston’s research was just hitting its stride. They were getting ready to test some of her findings in cancer patients and were working with a pharmaceutical company on a potential new treatment. “Now we can’t do any of that,” Weber said. “She’s gone, and the science is gone because I don’t have anybody to work on it.”

A "brutally competitive business"

Raymond Tait is the vice president for research at Saint Louis University. He says it’s been increasingly difficult for researchers to get federal grants. “It’s really a brutally competitive business right now.” Tait said.

And he says even those who get grants are getting less than money they counted on. “I’ve talked with some folks who are successful businessmen who are astounded and frankly laugh when they hear about the amount of work that scientists are willing to do to get a level of funding that they believe amounts to something akin to crumbs,” Tait said.

Jennifer Lodge, the associate dean for research at Washington University’s School of Medicine, says between the continuing resolution and sequestration, federal funding for medical research is down about 10 percent this year compared to 2012. And she says the decline in government support is nothing new: the budget for the National Institutes of Health has been stagnant for the past 10 years.

“That’s caused a reduction in buying power of about 25 percent over the decade,” Lodge said. “And so that means we’re doing 25 percent less research than we were doing a decade ago. And that’s very, very discouraging for our investigators.”

The effects on St. Louis-area universities

This year, the sequester required the more than two dozen federal agencies that fund academic research to reduce their spending by about five to seven percent. Some agencies have responded by cutting the budgets of existing grants. Others are making fewer new awards. Some, like the NIH, are doing a little of both.

In St. Louis, Washington University, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis all get about three-quarters of their research funding from federal sources. The sequestration cuts have hit scientists in every field, from medicine to engineering to ecology.

Young careers in question

And almost every researcher I talked to for this story had one thing in common. They were less concerned about their own research than they were about their students.

Viktor Gruev is a computer engineer at Washington University. “As a researcher, as a professor, you’re almost like a parent,” Gruev said.

Gruev says thanks to sequestration, he lost an Air Force grant that had been funding two Ph.D. students in his lab. Now he’s scrambling to find other ways to support them. “Because you realize if they’re not able to finish they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities in life,” Gruev said.

University of Missouri-St. Louis plant biologist Elizabeth Kellogg says all the uncertainty about funding is making some students rethink their career paths. “I think they see faculty members spending more and more time writing grants, trying to get funding, trying to keep things running,” Kellogg said. “And I think the students do start wondering...”

Wondering whether a career in academic research is really worth it.

Private industry to the rescue?

But UMSL’s vice provost for research Nasser Arshadi says maybe the picture for U.S. science isn’t as dire as it sounds. “Federal funding for research is not the only source of funding,” Arshadi said.

Arshadi, who’s an economist, says the U.S. invests about $400 billion a year on research. Only about a third of that comes from the federal government. The rest, Arshadi says, is funded by industry. “I think it’s perhaps time for university researchers to get used to the idea of trying to collaborate more effectively with industry for some of their research,” Arshadi said. “That’s basically an untapped area.”

But Washington University research dean Jennifer Lodge thinks that’s a little naïve — at least when it comes to medical research. “Pharmaceutical firms have been around for a long time, and what we’ve seen them doing over the past decade is actually cutting their research budgets,” Lodge said. “They are not investing more and more in research; they are investing less and less.”

She says scientists in St. Louis are only too aware of that trend. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer eliminated hundreds of research positions here in 2009.

Former Washington University post-doc Rachel Delston says she feels lucky to have gotten a job at a St. Louis-based company doing research on cancer. But she says maintaining funding for academic research is crucial. “Because a lot of the work that we do in industry is based on findings that were discovered in academia,” Delston said.

And Delston adds, without that academic research to build on, many of the life-saving drugs and treatments developed by private industry might not exist.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience