It looks like we've narrowly escaped another government shutdown over the budget. But this is small consolation for those of us in the science community, who expect another dismal year of funding for the National Institutes of Health, which has fallen by nearly a quarter in adjusted dollars between 2003 and 2014. If we don't reverse this trend and reinvest in science, we're headed for a shutdown of scientific discovery.

What kind of discovery? Take the recent breakthrough drug for cystic fibrosis, approved by the FDA this past summer. Cystic fibrosis was first described in 1939, and it took 76 years and 35,000 scientific publications before we developed an effective treatment. Along the way, scientists identified the gene associated with cystic fibrosis, how mutations in this gene compromise the maturation and activity of the protein that it encodes, how those defects cause disease, and, only then, a compound that could reverse these effects. In other words, scientific knowledge must progress from basic discoveries to targeted applications, and this process takes time and long-term commitment.


One component of that long-term commitment rests with talented, dedicated and passionate scientists. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of young people who are prepared to spend 5 to 7 years in a Ph.D. program after college. But once they graduate, they need jobs to stay in science, and those jobs exist largely because our representatives made a long-term commitment to funding the National Institutes of Health, which peaked in 2003, right after I found my first job.

My timing was lucky. If I were to embark on the same path now, the odds that I could progress from an undergraduate research project through post-doctoral studies would be strongly against me, and the new knowledge that I have contributed to our scientific consciousness would have been delayed or never realized. Today less than 60 percent of biomedical Ph.D. graduates work in an area closely related to their training, according to a 2008 study by the NIH. The rate of this exodus is most severe for the most recent graduates.

This sharp transition occurred because scientists lost our long-term partner. NIH funding fell by 11.4 percent from fiscal year 2003 to 2010 and by another 12.1 percent by fiscal year 2013, numbers that are adjusted for the rising costs of conducting research. The fact of the matter is that reductions in the NIH budget don’t simply impact research in the current year. They irreversibly reduce the number of biomedical scientists and thereby the pace of discovery.

Competition for funding is based not only on the strength of the ideas proposed but also on the previous accomplishments of the scientist proposing them. Once a scientist has a gap in NIH funding, the probability of regaining it is only 45 percent. A 2013 survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology clarifies the impact of this effect: 55 percent of respondents had a colleague that had lost his or her job or expected to lose one soon.

The challenges that scientists are facing now also negatively impact our future. Scientific training is an apprenticeship in which students gain experience in the laboratory of an active researcher. When scientists have less or no funding to conduct research, their ability to mentor a trainee is proportionally reduced (the average cost of training a Ph.D. student is $200,000-$300,000). By 2013, 53 percent of biomedical researchers indicated that they had to turn away promising young potential trainees.

Even Ph.D. students are affected by the funding downturn. They watch their mentors struggle to keep research programs afloat and their career prospects restricted by declining grant success rates. In my department at the University of Arizona, we typically get at least 200-300 applications for a single position. And even for those who break through, the average age at which a Ph.D. scientist is awarded his or her first NIH research grant is now forty-two

This country has already made a significant investment in science, and it has led to many of the advances from which society now benefits. But scientific discovery is progressive. And the current system, in which there are many ways to exit the profession and few, if any, to re-enter it, limits the pace of that discovery.

By analogy, how would we feel about the safety and security of our nation if we released 40 percent of our military trainees after basic training and disbanded the military reserves?

How much more do we need? Between fiscal year 2010 and 2014, funding decisions created a $13 billion shortfall from the projected NIH budget based on its historic growth rate over the previous 60 years. That’s a lot of ground to regain in one year. But even the proposed increase, representing a 6.7 percent increase in the NIH budget, would start to bring us closer to the sustainable system that our annual budgetary process has begun to dismantle.

To our representatives, I say: let’s re-establish our long-term partnership before we reach a point of no return. We’re committed, are you?

Serio is chair of the department of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona and Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.