Federal cuts cause big drop in medical researchers

Ten years ago, a group of three neuroscience faculty members at Weill Cornell Medical College supervised and trained 10 fully funded junior researchers in their lab. Now, because of substantial cuts to medical research funding, that number has dwindled to a mere three. 

This scenario is playing out around the country as federal funding, typically the engine powering medical research, is dramatically scaled back.

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Over the past decade, federal support for biomedical research has declined by 25 percent in real dollars. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest source of funding for medical research, is approving half as many proposals as before. Like other institutions around the country, Weill Cornell is now weathering a 5 percent reduction in NIH support for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years.

These cuts have a huge impact on our ability to nurture junior researchers. Our graduate students are currently struggling to find professors willing to support their thesis projects, while obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship is becoming almost as difficult as landing a faculty appointment. 

Senior researchers are resorting to creative measures to fill the funding gap. Teresa Milner, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell who investigates sex differences related to drug abuse, enlists the aid of high school and college students seeking lab experience, a practice she started nearly 40 years ago. Although it takes a year to master the electron microscopy techniques her lab employs, her student volunteers now play an increasingly crucial role after she lost one of her two NIH grants. These budding young investigators represent the next generation of biomedical scientists—but they won’t always be willing to work for free, and eventually, they will need advanced training, which costs real money.

The path to becoming an independent scientist is already a long, arduous process. Less than 20 percent of graduate students acquire faculty positions and set up their own labs. Those who do will have reached an average age of 38, and many will spend an additional four to seven of their most creative years scrambling to obtain their first major NIH grant.

With the added challenge of today’s tough environment, anyone hoping to start a family, pay off student loans, make ends meet, or find stable employment could hardly be faulted for considering other career options, regardless of their passion for science.

Our country can’t afford to lose these young investigators.  They’re the ones who’ll be making the discoveries of tomorrow and working to ensure the health of generations to come.

The tragedy for the U.S. is that this dwindling of science is occurring at a time of unparalleled opportunities to improve life for all Americans.  Thanks to a long history of government support, biomedical science has reached an exhilarating stage. We’re unlocking the secrets of the human genome, mining big data, and visualizing the body’s tissues and organs with an astonishing degree of clarity. We’ve created entirely new classes of drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies, antidepressant SSRIs, and HIV antiretrovirals, and we’re on the cusp of being able to offer patients precise treatments based on their genetic makeup.  Engineering new tissues to replace damaged or diseased ones, long the province of science fiction, is becoming a reality. 

At Weill Cornell, NIH funding supports ongoing studies of the mechanisms underlying cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and heart disease, as well as research on hepatitis B infection, lung regeneration, and depression in the elderly. Recently, my own lab was able to discover a gene implicated in the progression of triple-negative breast cancer with NIH support.

Congress and the Obama administration should tread carefully when it comes to cutting biomedical research, because every dollar that goes towards it is an investment in our nation’s scientific talent and our collective future. This issue transcends political and ideological differences. The medical advances that emerge from universities and research institutions bring hope and better health to patients and families in the US and around the world—and there is still so much more to discover.  But none of this promise can be realized without strong, predictable support from the federal government. It is this simple: no science, no future.

Glimcher is the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and Provost for Medical Affairs of Cornell University.  Prior to joining Weill Cornell in 2012, Glimcher was at Harvard Medical School, where she headed one of the top immunology programs in the world.  Her laboratory discovered new genes in the immune system that are critical for the development of protective immunity and for the pathologic immune responses underlying autoimmune, infectious, allergic and malignant diseases.