Finally understanding the impact of sequestration

“How has sequestration affected you and other postdocs?” a journalist asked me a few weeks ago. He was doing a story on the impact on scientific research of this year’s $85 billion reduction of federal spending. The vast majority of scientific research in the United States is funded by the federal government.

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how to answer his question. I happen to work at a world-class cancer research center that has been able to provide an incredibly supportive environment for research, even during the financial downfall of 2008. I figured we’d be ok for now. The future, however, is less certain.

A likely direct impact of sequester is that fewer scientists may choose to go into academia. Colleagues who are hoping to have careers in research at academic institutions are worried since it’s becoming more and more difficult to get research grants funded. The funding situation was already pretty tough before sequester. The question on everyone’s minds is how will it change now? Academic career pursuits are also in trouble due to the fact that university departments may also slow down hiring of faculty. In the current climate, PhDs may choose to explore other science-related fields—biotech, science writing, consulting, to name a few. How these non-academic sectors handle the potential increase in PhDs being funneled towards them remains to be seen.

As PhDs in the US, how are we going to train ourselves for nonacademic careers with limited resources? As graduate students and postdocs in academic institutions, we’re generally trained to do one thing: how to do academic research. We can choose to take part in extracurricular activities that do train us for the non-academic job market. The extent of this training and participation varies from institution to institution. Luckily, I work in a place where there is a lot of institutional support (financial and administrative) for such programs. We probably have one of the best* student and postdoc associations in the nation but our budget has taken substantial hits several times this year. Going forward, we’ll have to think hard about the kinds of career development programs we can offer and become more creative with our resources. I feel deeply for my colleagues at other institutions who are starting or trying to maintain programs with almost nonexistent institutional support.

There are likely to be broader impacts on science in the US. Our commitment to scientific progress has played a huge role in the amount of innovation that comes out of the US—and this very innovation (and our immigrant history) is what has made us a global leader. (It sounds cheesy, but I believe in this strongly.) I worry that this will change if we don’t continue our commitment to science. This problem is bigger than this year’s sequester. Rates at which research grants are funded have been steadily decreasing over the last decade.

These were the issues as I understood them at the time of the interview when I shared them with the reporter. I now know that my understanding of the impact of sequestration on science was far from complete. I hadn’t considered the impact on people—not just careers.

The main function of a research center is, of course, to support and carry out research. In order to preserve funding for this essential function, difficult decisions have to be made to reduce the number of support staff (administrative, technical, etc). This happens at the level of research centers and in individual labs. Saying goodbye to these valued colleagues is when I finally understood the impact of sequestration.

 

*Ok, as chair of the said association, I might be slightly biased. The assertion as to the strength of our program is based on my experience at a recent national conference, where I had the chance to compare ours with other organizations.

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