Globe: Impending Federal Cuts Would Hurt Boston Researchers

The headline sounds a little Halloweeny — “Threat to funds haunts Boston-area labs” — but there’s nothing festive about the frightening prospect described in today’s Globe story. Reporter Rob Weisman writes:

Boston-area teaching hospitals and universities are bracing for deep cuts in the federal funding that has fueled biomedical research for decades, raising fears that breakthrough work on cancer cures, stem cells, gene therapy, and other research will suffer setbacks.

Unless Congress agrees by Dec. 31 on $1.2 trillion in savings to reduce the federal deficit, National Institutes of Health spending will be trimmed by 8.2 percent, or about $2.5 billion annually, according to the Office of Management and Budget projections — part of an across-the-board budget-chopping process known as sequestration.

If that happens, hundreds of jobs and scores of grant proposals at Massachusetts labs could be lost. Some labs are already reassessing staff levels, and scientists worry they might not be able to proceed with crucial studies of serious diseases such as lung cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Frankly, I’ve never been able to get over my bafflement at the hand-to-mouth nature of jobs in science — the fact that the dependence on grants means that even some of our most brilliant scientists are often left wondering whether they’ll still be able to work on their promising projects in a year or two.

And though the NIH budget has technically been flat for the last few years, I’ve already been hearing quite a bit about ever-harder-to-get grants and the damage to delicate laboratory social ecosystems that build up over many years — and can be destroyed with a single committee’s “no.”

Massachusetts, as Rob points out, gets more NIH money per capita than any other state, and stands to lose between $200 and $300 million next year. I imagine office windows going dark from Kendall Square to the Longwood Medical Area. Or am I over-reacting to the usual anti-cut lobbying? Readers, thoughts?

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  • Coeruleus

    It’s hell out here in science world. Been that way for about 10 years: 0% NIH budget increase is like a 6% decrease because biomedical inflation is greater than overall inflation. And NIH has been treated better than other agencies! We were all barely hanging on, and then many of us got a life preserver when the stimulus came along. Now we’re back to a state of fear.

    Consider that we usually don’t earn much of an income until we’re close to 40 years old (it takes time to specialize skills to the point of getting an R01 grant). I’d much rather have had a far higher income tax rate these past 20 years if in return I’d have gotten some job security, rather than the few thousand bucks I got from the tax breaks and severe job insecurity because of the need to cut the budget to feed those worthless tax cuts.
    In the article, Barney Keller suggests the states or private industry could fund science! What a clueless, spoiled brat he is. Neither states nor companies can possibly fund that type of research.

    We’re not asking for lavish lifestyles or a doubling of our budgets or anything like that. Just, simply, a predictable science budget with predictable annual increases so that we can do our work helping advance knowledge, and can reasonably plan on doing so in the future as well. Worry about getting the grant will always accompany our kind of work, and we willingly subject ourselves to that: if we’re not good enough we get spit out. Problem is the randomness of funding these days.

    To answer your question: windows won’t necessarily go dark (things rarely turn out as bad as one fears), but there will be a whole lot fewer people working behind those glass facades.