Psychologist Stephanie Collins Reed, PhD, used to consult her university’s institutional review board (IRB). Now she works for an IRB — but not by choice.
Thanks to sequestration — the automatic budget cuts
introduced in 2013 to reduce the federal deficit — research
grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National
Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies have
become more difficult than ever to receive. Researchers with
already funded grants have seen their budgets cut in mid-stream,
making it harder to keep graduate students and other staff
on projects, enroll a sufficient number of subjects in research
studies and answer the questions they were funded to answer.
Even many well-established researchers are now so worried
about their future prospects they’re considering their options.
Reed is one of them. With a completely grant-funded
position at Columbia, she worried that her budget would be
cut even if one of the grants she submitted to NIH was funded.
Most of the peers she trained with have already left the field.
She jumped ship, too.
“ I was forced to accept an administrative position after
preparing to be a career scientist,” says Reed. These days, Reed
has a full-time job as an IRB administrator at the New York
State Psychiatric Institute, shepherding submitted research
protocols through the IRB process from beginning to end.
While she still maintains her status as an assistant professor of
Losing funding and morale
clinical neurobiology in psychiatry at the Columbia University
Medical Center, her research and teaching role has been
drastically reduced. Says Reed, “Although this is not what I
spent almost 20 years training to do, it offered me security and
a new career path that will hopefully lead to something just as
rewarding as my research did.”
After Reed accepted the new job, she discovered that one of
her grant proposals had received funding after all, but had to
ask her mentor to take over as principal investigator. “ I still have
a small part in that grant, but that wasn’t what I trained for and
lived for,” she says.
Sequestration was never meant to happen. In 2011, Congress
passed a law saying that if lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan
to cut the deficit, then automatic, across-the-board cuts in
discretionary spending would kick in in 2013. The hope was
that lawmakers would find that prospect so unappealing they
would come to agreement.
That didn’t happen, and now psychological researchers
are paying the price, along with children dropped from Head
Start programs, families without access to food stamps and
other Americans suddenly without access to much-needed
At NIH, for instance, sequestration has meant a cut of about
$1.7 billion — about 5. 5 percent of its almost $30 billion budget.
As part of its plan to absorb that reduction, NIH funded 640
fewer noncompeting grants in fiscal year 2013 than the 25,631 it
funded in fiscal year 2012. The average funding success rate was
less than 20 percent in fiscal year 2013. Researchers with ongoing
grants have had to absorb unexpected cuts of 5 to 8 percent.
At NSF, sequestration and other cuts have meant a more
than two percent decrease in its 2013 budget. NSF chose not to
cut ongoing grants but instead chose to fund about 1,000 fewer
grants in fiscal year 2013 than it did in 2012, with an estimated
21 percent success rate.
While the short-term effects are dire, say Reed and others,
the longer-term impact may be even worse. In the absence
of legislation to overturn it, the law cuts about $109 billion
in budget authority — what Congress is actually authorized
to spend — each year, half from defense and half from nondefense accounts, for the next decade. With morale dropping,
would-be graduate students may decide to seek more secure
career paths, for example. And with researchers unable to
get funding and shying away from ideas with greater risk but
potentially bigger pay-offs, they say, scientific progress and
American competitiveness may also suffer.
Psychologist Steven F. Warren, PhD, who oversees all
research conducted at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has
already seen sequestration’s impact firsthand.
Both the number and size of awards has dropped, says
Warren, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and a
professor of applied behavioral sciences. Getting federal funding
is highly competitive in the best of conditions, he says. These
days, however, it’s much more difficult.
“It becomes almost a lottery as to who actually gets funding,”
he says, explaining that many great proposals don’t get funded
simply because there’s not enough money. “It’s not about merit.”
For junior faculty, the inability to get funding lessens their
chances of getting tenure and becoming successful scholars, says
Warren. Because scientists need preliminary studies — what
Warren calls the “seed corn of science” — to build from, periods
of inactivity or low activity make them even less competitive
in the long run. Some people, including graduate students and
researchers whose salaries depend on grant funding, may even
lose their jobs, he adds.
But it’s not just young and would-be investigators who are
suffering, says Warren. Even researchers with existing grants
are hurting. Researchers who already have federal funding
have seen significant cuts, which means they have to do their
research on much tighter budgets than they had planned. That
can make it hard to do the research right, says Warren, making
it difficult, for example, to hire graduate research assistants or
even undergraduates to help with the work.
With additional cuts scheduled well into the future,
sequestration may also harm scientific progress itself, warns
Warren. In a funding environment like this one, he says, both
peer reviewers and scientists themselves tend to stay conservative.