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YSM scientists to congresswoman: flat research funding is hurting us

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who represents New Haven and neighboring towns in the U.S. Congress, came to the medical school on June 7 to hear scientists describe the impacts of reduced federal funding for research—having to choose between their own salaries and buying lab supplies, postdocs who are abandoning careers in research, and jobs in labs eliminated. The downpour that day was a suitable backdrop to the researchers’ funding woes, which also included reduced research capacity and efficiency and stalled scientific careers. Things are expected to get worse when the full effects of the budget sequester take effect. The congresswoman, a supporter of medical research, was sympathetic to the scientists’ plight, but unable to offer any promises that circumstances will improve.

The voices of scientific societies, which have circulated petitions and letters to congress signed by many of the scientists in the room, have not been not loud enough, said DeLauro. She suggested an increase in op-ed pieces to local newspapers from doctors and scientists, and lobbying from them not to their local congressperson, but to colleagues in their fields whose own representatives are on the fence or uninformed about the importance of biomedical research. (Connecticut’s congressional delegation, DeLauro said, is already on board with support of medical research, but representatives from other states need to be convinced.) “There is real power in your stories,” DeLauro said, “and they have to be told in a way that ordinary people understand what is at risk for them.”

The meeting in a conference room at the Brady Memorial Laboratory came about through an invitation to DeLauro by Lawrence J. Rizzolo, Ph.D. associate professor of surgery (gross anatomy). Rizzolo, who conducts stem cell research on age-related macular degeneration, wanted DeLauro to hear firsthand from researchers who are struggling due to insufficient funding and are bracing for additional cuts caused by sequestration. The sequester, he and others pointed out, comes after 10 years of flat federal funding of medical research, despite the inflation of research costs and an influx of new investigators. Rizzolo is facing his own uncertain future, with his funding being reduced in October, and he rounded up five other colleagues to meet with the congresswoman to put a face to the funding plight and give her concrete examples of the effects of insufficient funding.

Mark S. Kidd, Ph.D., a research scientist in surgery (gastrointestinal), said that funding cuts are not only impairing vital research, they are also eroding the culture of science and creating a pool of contract workers without job security. Young researchers, some attendees said, no longer want to stay in science when they see senior colleagues struggling. A postdoctoral fellow is leaving the lab of John P. Geibel, M.D., D.Sc., professor of surgery (gastrointestinal) and director of biomedical research, for example, because of a lack of funding and a general malaise about the future of research. Joseph Santos-Sacchi, Ph.D., professor of surgery (otolaryngology), said that he has had to eliminate a position in his lab and is unable to promote a successful young investigator, who will now have reduced output because of a reduction in funded hours.

These scientists, as well as their colleagues Natalia Isaeva, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgery (otolaryngology), and research scientist Sergey Ivanov, Ph.D., who were also in attendance, all work on clinically meaningful questions in cancer, digestive disease, and vision and hearing loss.

Rizzolo made a comparison between funding for science and other transactions, like buying a car, which include fees beyond services rendered. Those surcharges cover the research and development of next year’s products. In principal, said Rizzolo, health care is no different, and government must support the research that helps future patients. Moreover, the government has already invested in the people, facilities, and projects of the research apparatus for so many decades that to cut and run now would invalidate the investment. The group’s stories illustrated how millions of dollars of government investment are“turning into vapor” with the de-prioritization of research and how sequester is making a bad story that much worse.

Just days after the meeting with DeLauro Rizzolo learned that his Connecticut Stem Cell grant went unfunded, because there were insufficient funds for the number of qualified proposals. Now Rizzolo’s proposal will be reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where the sequester has reduced the number of available awards even further.

This loss was driven home by the case of Michael Centrella Ph.D., professor of surgery (plastic), who is closing his lab after 22 years at Yale. The current research environment precluded Centrella, who was not present at the meeting but whose story was relayed to the congresswoman, from securing sufficient funding from NIH and other sources to maintain his appointment.

Yale ranks fifth nationwide in NIH awards, but although the number of grants coming to Yale has not changed these awards have become smaller, Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D. Ensign Professor of Medicine, said recently during a talk on the state of the school.

DeLauro didn’t need to be convinced of the necessity and benefits of biomedical research—it played a factor in her survival of ovarian cancer, she said. Rather, some of her colleagues across the aisle are the ones that need to hear the “personal testimony” of researchers to be convinced of the life-saving potential of their work. “And if you can’t get them on the humanity of what you do, get them on the economics,” DeLauro said. The magnitude of the investment that has already taken place should make anyone think twice about abandoning the sunk costs, and the future potential medical and financial rewards of continued robust research funding.