Dwindling Intellectual Capital in US Science Research: How Sequestration Continues to Hurt Long-term US Interests


Lady Liberty, a symbol of indomitable hope

For a while, I have been following and writing on the terrible science funding crunch situation in the US as a result of sequestration, whose ill effects were compounded by the period of government shutdown. I heard the alarm bells at the end of 2010 (when my blog was still a part of Nature Blogs); it scared me to find out how much even the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) seemed to agree with me on this. The danger became imminent in the fall of 2012, when a legislative alert from my professional body, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), laid out in great details the alarming impact of sequestration - an indiscriminate budget cut imposed on on science and public health programs, amongst other things. And going against all good sense, the sequester was implemented at the beginning of March, 2013; at that time, I caught a glimpse of the horrendous future impacts of the self-inflicted trauma that was the sequester, on the nation's well-being.

There was a brief glimmer of hope for 2014, as proposed by a Senate Bill which hoped to boost the NIH budget slightly. Various aspects of the bill are currently (February 2014) being discussed in various Appropriations subcommittee meeting. If, however, it comes to the Republican version of this bill, the funding would be reduced by about 26% which would impact all programs. Meanwhile, the negative impacts of the sequestration had already been exacting such a terrible toll on crucial research funding in the US, that ASM issued another legislative alert in July 2013 to its scientist members requesting them to talk to their elected representatives about the worrisome situation.

It was within a month of this time that the desperate, heartbreaking and ugly situation surrounding US research fund crunch due to the sequestration began to emerge fully. Sam Stein, the noted Huffington Post political reporter, wrote an assay exposing the effects on real researchers and scientists - which I had commented upon. As if this were not enough, partisan political machinations forced the Federal government into a shutdown in October, 2013 - with devastating impacts on biomedical and other research, as well as on health and welfare programs. As the shutdown rolled into the third week, its severe detrimental effects on both local and global research environments began to become more and more apparent.

Finally, after 16 excruciating days - which cost the Federal government approximately US$24 billion according to economists - the shutdown was signed away, providing some temporary reprieve to struggling researchers. However, as Darren Samuelsohn pointed out in his Politico essay, the fallout on science from this prolonged shutdown could last for years, in some overt, some not-so-apparent ways.

In November 2013, via another legislative alert, ASM renewed its call for ending the sequestration, and increasing funding for basic and applied research, and most importantly, for sustaining various stalled Public Health programs. The funding situation, however, is far, far from being clear, and the provision of much-needed financial resources is still very much a hapless pawn in the political games that are being played out.

Although complacence is out of question, a struggle running for close to four years can sometimes lull the sensitivities of those, like me, who are in the thick of things, but powerless to do anything. A longish and poignant essay this morning in the Chronicle of Higher Education on how cash-strapped scientists are abandoning scientific research and students came as a high voltage jolt that brought things back into sharp, and rather depressing, focus.

The budget of the National Institutes of Health, the single biggest supplier of research dollars to universities, hasn’t beat inflation in more than a decade. The National Science Foundation and other federal providers aren’t doing a lot better.

On average, university researchers get into their 40s before securing their first independent grant. Full-time faculty research jobs are gradually being replaced by lower-paid contract work. Foreign competitors are matching or exceeding American science performance on a variety of important measures.

After several years of growing anxiety over whether those trends are temporary or enduring, thousands of university researchers responding to a Chronicle survey have helped answer a key question: For better or worse, the nation’s scientists have embarked on an unequivocal downsizing of their capability to perform basic investigative research.

The survey was sent to 67,454 researchers holding current grants from the NIH or NSF. More than 11,000 responded. Among the key findings: Nearly half have already abandoned an area of investigation they considered central to their lab’s mission. And more than three-quarters have reduced their recruitment of graduate students and research fellows because of economic pressures.

[...]

Depression, discouragement, and stress were common words in the comments that accompanied responses to the Chronicle survey. Researchers expressed concern both for themselves and for their counterparts, including students who they had hoped would become the nation’s next generation of scientists.

The authors, Basken and Voosen (Both: Paul), go on to talk to currently-working researchers in various universities and research labs, and piece by piece emerges the story of some terrible losses: the story of a highly trained, successful research team with tremendous potential, which disbanded because the researchers couldn't find permanent academic appointments despite their accomplishments; the story of an alarming decrease in the number of STEM doctorates employed as full-time academic faculty; the story of how the prolonged struggle by academia to wrest funding out of an inhospitable system has already created some converts so inured to these chronic travails that they no longer understand why everyone else is so upset; the story of how many researchers are now actively considering taking their research overseas, to more conducive environments, leaving the standards of US scientific research in the doldrums; the story of how - for years to come - this funding crisis would continue to hamstring researchers and severely reduce the possibility of truly innovative scientific breakthroughs being discovered.

This is just to name a few points touched upon in the long-ish essay. It is well worth a read if only to get a sense of shared misery from other working scientists caught in this maelstrom. What the data suggest is also what is intuitively true: less money means less science. This is how the sequestration has been seriously jeopardizing the leadership and boundary-pushing role in science and technology that the US has so far enjoyed in the world.


2 Responses to “Dwindling Intellectual Capital in US Science Research: How Sequestration Continues to Hurt Long-term US Interests”

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      I am most deeply concerned about this state of affairs, Paige. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this situation weighs heavy on US scientists, but the impact on immigrant scientists and researchers is even more stark and downright scary.

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