What the Sequester Means for Science

BY Jenny Marder and Rebecca Jacobson  March 5, 2013 at 4:00 PM EST

A lab technician pipettes liquid into test tubes. Photo by Photo by Apostrophe Productions.

Scientists nationwide are bracing for the impacts of the sequestration cuts, which are poised to strike a fierce blow to research.

Policymakers aren’t the only ones fatigued by the automatic federal spending cuts that became a certainty on Friday, said Joanne Carney, director of government affairs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Barring further congressional action, the sequester includes 5.1 percent across-the-board cuts to non-defense agencies. This includes the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and the energy and interior departments. Since these agencies are already five months into their fiscal year, all the cuts will be felt in the remaining seven months.

NASA is facing an estimated $474 million in cuts to research, and the National Science Foundation is facing $283 million in cuts, according to a AAAS analysis. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that they could be forced to close 128 of the nation’s 561 national wildlife refuges — that’s 22.8 percent — and halt visiting to those refuges.

Republicans don’t agree with all of the cuts in sequester but say they are necessary to fulfill a promise to get America’s spending under control.

“It’s time for the president and Senate Democrats to get serious about the long-term spending problem that we have,” House Speaker John Boehner said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

The National Institutes of Health, the country’s largest supporter of basic research, are taking a particularly hard hit in dollar terms. The agency’s $1.6 billion in cuts translates to about 20,000 jobs and cuts to critical research areas. Cancer, the influenza virus and Alzheimer’s research will stall, faced with less grant money and fewer scientists, according to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who spoke on the impacts of the sequester during a press conference on Feb 25.

Biomedical research, he added, has been undergoing stress since 2003. A researcher’s chance of being funded for grants has dropped from one in three to about one in six. This comes at a time when China, India and Brazil are increasing their support of biomedical research at double digit percentages each year. Scott L. Zeger, vice provost for research Johns Hopkins University worries specifically about cuts to genomics, a key component to biomedicine.

“Imagine yourself as a young investigator with a great idea, ready to tackle it and to do so in your university setting somewhere in that great land of ours, knowing you have an only one in six or less chance of being funded, seeing that there seems to be no real clear path forward for achieving stability in support of biomedical research…,” Collins said. “I worry deeply about this.”

In an interview for the NewsHour on Feb. 20, Collins argues that science is a good investment for the economy.

“You heard the president quote the statistic about the Genome Project, that every dollar returned $140 dollars in terms of economic growth in the first few years after the project was completed,” Collins told the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez. “That’s a pretty darn good return on the government’s investment.”

The National Science Foundation‘s calculations show they will support 1,000 fewer grants in 2013. And that number translates to 1,600 fewer graduate research fellows and nearly 180 fewer postdocs.

“It presents a bleak picture for their future,” Carney said. “Where are they going to go to look for jobs? Many will have to look in other fields or look overseas. Who wants to pursue a degree in science and engineering when prospects look so grim?”

QUICK BITES

  • That was the tweet sent out by the Mars Curiosity Rover feed on March 1, after a computer glitch forced the rover to switch to backup computer. As of 6 p.m. ET on March 4, the rover was still in “safe mode,” according to this BBC report. The mission’s project manager Richard Cook told the BBC that it would probably take several days, “maybe a week, of activities to get everything back and reconfigured.”

  • NASA’s Cassini spacecraft snapped this shot of Venus while in orbit around Saturn.

  • Must read from Wired: “How Far Could a Drug Cannon Shoot?”

  • For Twitter fans who must tweet at all costs, there is now a service that allows you to share your thoughts from the grave. LivesOn.org will study your Twitter messages and tweet accordingly, Bloomberg News reports. Or as this writer puts it: “For some there might be no finer way to spend the afterlife than insulting TV presenter Piers Morgan.”

  • When a video of a breathing baby is run through an algorithm that amplifies movement and color, “the baby’s face blinks crimson with each tiny heartbeat,” reports the New York Times. The technology, originally used to monitor neonatal babies, may eventually be useful in search and rescue efforts.

  • “A ring of radiation previously unknown to science fleetingly surrounded Earth last year before being virtually annihilated by a powerful interplanetary shock wave, scientists say.” From Live Science and Space.com.

Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.