Closer Look

Scientists leaving their labs for their laptops

As grants for scientific research dwindle, Loyola's scientists search for a silver lining. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan.

When federal funds get cut, science feels the squeeze — and so does Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine.

Last year, when Congress failed to pass a new budget, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, had to cut more than $1 billion from its own budget. As a result, it lowered the amount of federal grants for research it gave to universities and research institutions.

The boost in funding from 2001 to 2004 reflects a heavy push for more financial support by Congress. The federal stimulus funding was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allowed federal agencies to give grants and tax credits to state goverments and schools to help them through the recession. All numbers are from the NIH.
The boost in funding from 2001 to 2004 reflects a heavy push for more financial support by Congress. The federal stimulus funding was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allowed federal agencies to give grants and tax credits to state goverments and schools to help them through the recession. All numbers are from the NIH.

The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Education, all of which also fund research projects, saw similar slashes to their budgets. And because biomedical research is so expensive, most private companies don’t want to invest in it.

At universities across the country, many senior researchers and their graduate students have left their labs for their laptops, writing grant proposals to keep their research projects funded.

Stritch’s research institute is no exception.

From 2011 to 2013, the amount of money Stritch’s Health Sciences Division spent on research grew by about $3.8 million over three years — the research was well-supported. It spent $39 million in 2013 as compared to $35.2 million in 2011.

But in 2014, the budget started to shrink; the expenses fell to $37.7 million, according to Richard Kennedy, vice provost of research and graduate programs at Stritch. It’s a small decrease, but the loss means there’s less money to spend on equipment, lab technicians, supplies trainees and staff.

“If someone were trying to turn researchers into grant writers — this is the way to do it,” said Alan Wolfe, chair of Stritch’s research funding committee. “That is literally all I do.”

Wolfe, who studies microbiology, used to write grant proposals once every two or three years. It used to take him at least six weeks to get one ready. Now he writes one proposal every month.

All that time spent writing means less time in the lab with his students. Instead, Wolfe works more than 40 hours during the week and comes in on weekends, too.

“There’s just no time to think,”  he said.

A LONG, WINDING ROAD

Getting a grant is a delicate process, Wolfe explained. With less funding to dole out, the NIH has to look for research projects that balance an impactful, practical research question with good experiment design.

Loyola’s grant awards have followed a similar pattern to the growth and decline of the NIH’s budget. All numbers are from the NIH.
Loyola’s grant awards have followed a similar pattern to the growth and decline of the NIH’s budget. All numbers are from the NIH.

Each proposal submitted to the NIH is sorted into a study section based on its subject. Then three experts in that field review it. The best proposals get combed over by the reviewers, and only the top 10 to 12 percent receive grants. A few years ago, the top 20 percent usually wrangled the funds.

This competitive atmosphere and limited funds are driving a wedge between scientists and their research, Wolfe said.

“We can’t do the best science,” he added. “The best science isn’t sitting in front of a computer trying to figure out how to write a sentence.”

As Wolfe sees it, the pressure to write a grant that will meet the NIH’s requirements can stifle innovation. It forces scientists to ask questions that are “appropriate” rather than ones they consider important.

The NIH doesn’t have the money to support risky experiments, so scientists stay clear of them.

“We’re not thinking deeply,” he said. “We’re thinking about money.”

MISSING FUNDS AND STUDENTS

While grant funds are shrinking, the cost of equipment for experiments is rising.

Experiments often need chemical ingredients or kits to examine things such as blood and urine, and labs should be stocked with equipment such as microscopes, petri dishes and Bunsen burners.

Coupled with fewer grant funds, it’s more difficult to cover postdoctoral students’ stipends, research technicians’ salaries and some parts of the faculties’ salaries.

From 1998 to 2003, the NIH’s budget doubled. Many universities took the upswing to heart and expanded their research labs physically and intellectually. Since then, the NIH’s budget — adjusted for inflation — has fallen by 20 percent, but many scientists are still scavenging for research dollars that aren’t there any more. What dollars they do get are worth less.

Many graduate and postdoctoral students know that things aren’t great in academic research right now.  They’ve started looking for positions outside of the university setting.

“Enrollment for our Ph.D. students dropped somewhere between 15 and 20 percent due in part to concern about NIH funding,” Kennedy said. “All of our [researchers] feel the pressure to compete for a diminishing amount of money.”

Kennedy explained that it often takes young researchers five to seven years to earn a permanent position at Stritch. These days, it can take that long for scientists to get their first grant for their projects.

Instead of sticking around research institutions, these well-trained scientists set their sights on pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology and patent law. Some are leaving the United States for China, India and Singapore, where governments and private companies are pouring money into their research industries.

“There is a trend — well, I guess it’s more than a trend — it’s an obvious change in where particularly our Ph.D. students are planning to go for their careers,” Kennedy said. “Many years ago, a majority of students around the country were thinking of going into academia to research and teach.”

Wolfe and Kennedy both said that the United States should see an investment in medical research as an investment in the country’s economy. Research can find ways to treat diseases and, down the line, possibly create manufacturing and production jobs.

“It is our science that drives our country,” Wolfe said.

A BROADER VIEW

Compared to other universities, Stritch is doing pretty well. University of  Virginia doubled its lab space in the early 2000s to make room for more than 700 researchers and technicians. But with slim grant funds, the university had to take away 300 of those jobs, according to National Public Radio.

Wolfe and Kennedy haven’t seen that sort of blow at Stritch, so they find reasons to be hopeful.

Graduate and postdoctoral students need experience writing grants, Wolfe said, because they’ll have to write their own if they continue on in academia. He’s also gotten better at writing grants. Plus, he added, the work is worth it.

“I’m going to struggle on,” he said. “I’m doing something important, and, eventually, I’m going to win the lottery.”

Kennedy said that the shift away from academic research isn’t necessarily a bad thing for students. Now, professors are starting to change the way they prepare graduate students for the workforce. They’re taking a broader approach to research and exploring the difference between the university lab and the industrial or commercial lab.

But the national move away from funding biomedical research?  That still has Kennedy worried.

“In the long run — as a scientist — I do think it is a little short-sighted to let medical science remain where it is,” he said. “My children have children, and I do worry about where this is all going to go over the next 10 years.”

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