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Dog Bites Man? Researchers Say U.S. Government Should Fund More Science

30 August 2013 6:00 pm

U.S. biomedical researchers have once again registered their unhappiness with the current federal budget crunch. In a survey released yesterday by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), respondents overwhelmingly say that funding troubles are threatening their work and America’s scientific preeminence.

But the unscientific nature of the online survey makes it hard to know exactly what the results say about the state of U.S. academic research. Its value as a lobbying tool is also open to debate.

The report’s title, Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, captures its main finding: Ninety-six percent of respondents say that research budgets are not growing fast enough to keep up with the scientific opportunities. Some 85% of respondents also believe that America’s scientific edge over other countries has shrunk or disappeared because of tightening budgets since 2004, the peak year of federal spending when adjusted for inflation.

The survey “adds the voices of individual scientists” to the society’s campaign to persuade Congress to boost support for research and roll back this year’s budget cuts, known as sequestration, says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs for ASBMB. “We’ve been doing this whole advocacy thing for quite a while and think we know what congressional offices are interested in hearing about,” he says.

ASBMB enlisted the help of 15 other scientific societies in making the 18-question survey available to members this summer. Corb admits that the 3731 people who chose to respond are not a statistically valid sample of that community. Even so, the exercise can already claim one notable success: President Barack Obama yesterday tweeted a bastardized version of one of its findings and encouraged his followers to read the full report. (The tweet had more than 750 retweets as of today.)

The finding that resonated with President Obama was one of many answers scientists gave to a question about how they have been affected by a “more competitive funding environment” since 2010. Some 18% said they are “considering continuing my research career in another country.” (It was one of 22 possible responses, from which respondents could choose any that applied to them.)

The question doesn’t mention sequestration. In fact, the report notes that sequestration is only small part of a longer-term trend: The purchasing power of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) $30 billion budget is down nearly 30% in the past decade, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) $7 billion budget, despite growing in actual dollars since 2008, has lost 10% of its value.

But Obama is trying to convince congressional Republicans to abandon the mandatory across-the-board cuts, part of a 2011 budget deal gone bad, and embrace a “balanced” plan to shrink the deficit that includes tax increases. Accordingly, the president’s tweet implied that this year’s cuts are the sole villain in the present fiscal drama: “Due to the #sequester, nearly 20 percent of scientists are considering moving overseas.”

Obama’s comments highlight the problems in using such surveys in efforts to influence policymakers, says Michael Lubell, who runs the policy shop at the American Physical Society. “The fact that it comes from the scientific community, and will be seen as self-serving, weakens its potential impact,” he says. “The folks in Congress who are already predisposed to support science may use it in a floor speech to bolster their arguments. But those who see cutting science as a necessary part of squeezing the fat out of the budget will not be impressed at all.”

At the same time, a close analysis of the same survey question that caught Obama’s eye suggests that the effects of the current fiscal crisis may be more complicated—and perhaps less dire—than is often portrayed.

Some 64% of scientists report having “had difficulty” in getting grants since 2010, and 53% report having “had multiple grant applications” rejected. But those percentages are surprisingly low considering that study sections at NIH are rejecting more than 90% of proposals for the agency’s bread-and-butter R01 grants. So the fact that one-third to one-half of the respondents didn’t report funding difficulties could be seen as good news.

Of course, it’s possible that some of the respondents aren’t trying to get federal funding and thus, aren’t experiencing any rejection. In addition, some 6% of respondents say they “have not been affected” by the increased competition for funding, and 1.5% say the environment is not more competitive than in the past.

The current fiscal crunch has also generated many anecdotes about scientists losing their jobs or laying off staff members. But the survey paints a blurry picture of the employment situation facing scientists.

Only 1.5% of respondents say they have closed their labs, and 2.6% (respondents could select several answers, so there may be overlap) say they are “in the process” of doing so. Some 3.1% report having “lost my job,” and 7.6% say they “expect to lose my job soon.” At the same time, 55% say that they know a colleague who has either lost his or her job or will do so “in the near future.”

Although Corb says that the ASBMB tried to reach scientists from many disciplines, nearly 84% of the respondents classified themselves as biologists or biomedical researchers. (In addition, 36% of those who provided an affiliation said they were a member of ASBMB.) Chemists made up the second largest continent, at 8%, and mathematicians were third, at 5%. (Respondents were allowed to choose multiple fields, but no other discipline exceeded 3%.)

Some 91% worked in academia, and 81% described themselves as faculty members and/or principal investigators. Some 9% were postdocs and 5% were graduate students. Nearly four in five have received an NIH grant since 2010, and one in seven has been funded by NSF. No other federal agency cracked double digits, although 27% of respondents have received money from private foundations.

Finally, the survey suggests that many scientists aren’t on board with Corb’s plan to use their voices to influence policymakers. Fewer than one-third of the respondents provided ASBMB with contact information for the necessary follow-up to create what Corb calls “individual narratives” that would help make the case for more research funding. The vast majority chose to preserve their anonymity, giving the society only enough information—their state and zip code—for the survey results to be peddled to lawmakers in those geographic areas.

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