The federal sequester has been in effect for almost seven months and the impacts to science are already apparent. With less money for grants, labs across the country have been scrambling to adjust operations within the new climate.
One of those labs is run by Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, the director of the Institute for Neuroscience at the George Washington University. LaMantia's laboratory studies genetic and molecular mechanisms that regulate early forebrain development. His research also examines the role of forebrain developmental regulatory genes in behavioral and psychiatric disorders, including autism and schizophrenia. AAAS MemberCentral spoke with LaMantia about how the sequester is impacting his research.
AAAS MemberCentral: How has sequestration affected your federal funding?
Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Neuroscience, George Washington University: As a result of sequestration, compounded by earlier budget cuts that followed the brief respite provided by stimulus funding, we lost over $100,000 of annual support for the last two years from two RO1 grants (from the NIH) that were funded with very strong percentile scores. This loss of funding impacts us in two ways — we have fewer people in the lab to do the work we committed to do, thus slowing progress, and we have drastically limited resources to begin to explore exciting new hypotheses. Thus progress is really disrupted.
AAAS MC: How did you and your lab handle this reduction in funding? What other sources, if any, did you draw upon to make up for the lost funding?
LaMantia: We have reduced personnel costs as much as possible, and I have delayed recruiting post-doctoral scientists to work on a critical project in the lab. We have tried to reduce our mouse colony, and in doing so we have actually lost mouse lines that we now have to replace with newer, expensive commercial models. We found that the mice we eliminated from our colony are actually critical to answer a key question. We have also been far less adventurous in our work.
We have made up some ground from sources at George Washington University, but this generous support is not long term and mostly is designed to facilitate new grant applications or technology. We are turning to private funding sources, as are many other investigators. Still, the NIH remains the primary source of support for biomedical research. The decrease in NIH support is making it less possible to continue to do critical work on the basis of brain disorders that cost society far more in a month than 10 years of research would cost.
AAAS MC: Do you expect a similar reduction in your funding in the next year?
LaMantia: If sequestration remains in place, I believe that funding cuts in existing grants will continue. Investigators will realize that the old "modular" grants cannot actually support the level of work that NIH peer reviewers expect for a laboratory to remain competitive. Thus, investigators will ask for more money in new grants, which will put even more pressure on the amount of funding available for previous commitments. It may be easier for the NIH to cut funding to existing grants — even though these grants have lost much of their purchasing power to previous cuts.
AAAS MC: You have been involved in neuroscience research for many years. Is there any precedent for the political climate leading to similar across-the-board funding cuts?
LaMantia: When I began my independent career in the early 1990s, there was a temporary dip in the level of funding that made getting started challenging. Then, however, the expense of running a laboratory, and the expectations of the field for level of productivity and range of approaches needed to solve a problem were far less than now. In addition, one had the feeling that NIH funding remained popular with Congress — there was universal support for the doubling of the NIH budget and for the Human Genome Project. These days, the unfettered support that NIH used to enjoy is not as popular. There is more desire to place "strings" on the support that is available. All of these limitations are potentially disastrous for biomedical research. Although work on the details of what we already know about diseases is useful, the basic research that can open new doors to understanding pathogenesis and designing new treatments is the real key. That basic research is being lost due to the current issues with budgets and sequesters. Accordingly, the answers to unimagined new diseases, or new approaches to currently intractable problems, may be lost.
AAAS MC: Do you have anything you would like to say in closing?
LaMantia: The federal government and thus our fellow citizens have been incredibly generous and foresighted in supporting basic biological and biomedical research for nearly a century. It seems to me that support has yielded not only improvements in scientific research in the United States, but also global benefits by preventing or treating deadly diseases. I am hopeful that as the arguments become less contentious, everyone will realize that a modest, but still generous, investment in basic biomedical research is both sound and essential to our shared future.