Cutting off our nose to spite our face: Scientific funding in the age of sequestration

My friend Alexander Nakhnikian has been thinking and writing a lot about American politics and science. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts here on the impact of the sequester on American research. –Jennifer

Science is important. Really, really important. Most Americans agree about this. Unfortunately, we don’t always act as though scientific progress is a high priority. That’s partly because of the American love/hate relationship with science as a way of viewing the world, which is most evident in the fights over creationism, climate change, and vaccination. But there’s another factor in play that often gets overlooked because it seems so mundane: Money. We need it. Lots of it. And these days, we don’t have it.

Running a modern, cutting-edge lab is like running a small business. It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year to pay employees, maintain facilities, and afford the equipment required to conduct research. But unlike most small businesses, most labs doing basic research aren’t turning a profit. Instead, they do work that may lead to big breakthroughs in scientific knowledge—and, ultimately, big profits for drug companies and others.

To give an example from my field, neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease can be studied at either a foundational or a profit-driven level. At the profit-driven level, you have the search for new drugs and surgical devices that can improve a patient’s symptoms. But these would not be possible were it not for basic research that was funded by foundations. L-DOPA, the premier drug for treating Parkinson’s disease, is a result of painstaking, years-long research into complex chemical pathways in the brain that culminated in the development of a new drug. Nobody made millions of dollars discovering one more little detail about how the brain makes dopamine, the chemical that is deficient in Parkinson’s patients, but without that work, the drug companies’ money-making, life-saving innovations would have had no foundation upon which to build.

The fact is that the flow of capital in a purely market-based system is not optimal for some kinds of work, and scientific research is one of them. Moreover, private firms often have goals that are at odds with the goals of good science. If a particular drug is a danger to the public, we’re not going to find out if all the funding for drug research comes from the drug companies. To work around this problem, the government subsidizes basic research through organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These organizations account for a tiny sliver of the national budget, yet the return on the investment is huge. There are few uses of taxpayer dollars that result in more direct benefits for the economy, the nation, and the American public.

But science operates on long time-scales, and politics does not. Completing a sound series of experiments in the biological sciences, something that will really advance science and medicine, takes at least five years, if not ten or twenty. Politicians, on the other hand, are generally focused on the short term, touting whatever they think we get them more votes. If one year they want to appear “serious about science” they might up NIH’s budget 10%, but if in the next year that want to appear “serious about the debt” they might cut the budget by 5% – which is actually an even bigger hit when you factor in inflation. It’s not the best way of doing business, but the research community has thrived in spite of these difficulties for decades. This is no longer the case.

The recent economic collapse and the sequester have bled us dry. Sam Stein, writing for the Huffington Post, has produced an excellent series on the impact that the sequester has had on individual scientists. Not only are we losing the chance to fund new projects, we are prematurely terminating on-going projects that have already cost millions of dollars. This makes about as much sense as filling up the tank, then setting your car on fire because you don’t want to bother changing the oil.

In an attempt to refute Mr. Stein, the Washington Examiner ran an op-ed claiming, more or less, that Mr. Stein is exaggerating and that scientists are just a bunch of whiners. The Examiner points out that NIH’s funding is actually higher now than it was under either Bush or Clinton. How then could be we be living through such hard times?

It is technically true that NIH’s funding went up, and it makes sense at face value that if more money is available we should be fine. But this line of thinking simply doesn’t match up with the facts on the ground. I won’t go into details about the things we’ve done to save money in our field, but I will say one of my advisors was literally dodging bullets a few years back because of the need to stay in a cheap hotel while attending a neuroscience conference—and that was before the sequester hit.

When I read the Examiner’s op-ed, I remembered something I tell my stats students: the main reason to take stats is not to learn math, it’s to become very good at recognizing when an argument is full of horse excrement. Let’s put that skill to use. Just looking at the raw numbers is never a good idea; it is necessary to dig a little deeper.

The doubling of NIH’s budget is accounted for almost entirely by a series of large increases from the late 90s to the early 2000s, when times were good and President Bush wanted to deflect criticism of his administration’s handling of science. (Long story short, Dick Cheney strong-armed Congress to cut funding that was already allocated for medical research because one of the aims was to test the effects of condoms on the spread of HIV. This offended members of the administration’s political base, who saw it as an attack on abstinence only sex education). After that, things started to go south and funding slowed down so much that it no longer matches inflation. At the same time, NIH became committed to spending the money it had, since there’s no point just sitting on funds that could be going to productive research. The problem is that, once a project is funded, you’re on the hook for at least 5 years, which means that drastic cuts during that time will have a devastating effect on the new research. Those annual increases, though small, sounded big because a little chunk of 25 billion is a lot more than a little chunk of 19 billion. But the total amount matters less than how stable things are from one year to another. And between the fact that NIH is awarding fewer inflation-adjusted dollars per year and the fact that there are so many more projects to be funded, the net result is that hundreds/thousands of scientists are left wondering if they’ll have to abandon their research before it is done.

The need to cut on-going projects would be less troubling if we were simply defunding projects that yielded few valuable results, but this is not the case. Stein’s recent posts are a good source of information on the sorts of projects that are being cut. We are defunding promising research that would have surely received continued funding ten years ago. My own discussions with professors who have recently reviewed grants for NIH paint a very bleak picture. The consensus is that there are too many worthy projects and too few dollars to fund them. Grants that would have been funded without a second thought during other years are reluctantly denied due to the budget.

Here’s another way of looking at things. Congress threw a bunch of money at us every year for a while, and because that money is still officially part of the NIH budget, it looks as though things aren’t so bad. However, that money has, in effect, already been spent, so there is not enough to fund all the projects that were started before annual increases stopped keeping up with inflation. I cannot overstate the importance of on-going funding. For a research group to lose a grant because they failed to demonstrate the utility of their work is one thing. In the present situation, however, labs that are producing novel, useful results are considering whether to shut down due to lack of funds.

It might be tempting to ask why the scientific community didn’t sit on its extra funds for a “rainy day”. The short answer is “that’s not how it works”. If NIH did withhold funds in case things get bad, Congress would likely cut funding even further, while asking “why the heck aren’t you using the money we already gave you?” And, since there are always good research ideas in need of funding, it’s not hard to find worthy projects if you have grants to give out.

Besides, it’s not enough just to fund established projects. Research is a two-fold process: we need dedicated funding to maintain on-going projects, and we need liquid assets to be allocated to new research. Each year new Ph.D.s start trying to set up their own labs. We need new funds available for start-up money. That is not to say that we need huge budget increases each year. However, if a lot of money is available one year and none the next, it creates an extremely unstable environment in which research is stymied, careers are damaged, and the country loses more money in the long run due to inefficiency.

The sequester just demonstrates, through an extreme case, how disastrous the effects of sudden and heavy budget cuts can be for the sciences. Granted, the economy is a mess across the board right now, but cutting funding for research is, frankly, one of the stupidest things we can do to fix the debt. Federal funding for science is such a small part of the budget, and it provides so much bang for the buck, that trying to fix the debt by cutting research funding is like trying to lose weight by cutting off your thumbs.

Healing the system is crucial to maintaining our role as a world leader in scientific development. As a professional scientist I wish to see my field move forward, and as an American I have no desire to surrender our place as the nexus of major advances in science and technology. Our first priority must be undoing the immediate effects of the sequester. After that, advocacy for a more stable, more predictable policy regarding scientific funding will go a long way towards improving our productivity, our place in the world, and the well-being of the public.

The scientific community cannot do this on our own. We need the help of engaged, informed citizens who recognize the hard work it will take to rebuild the foundations of American research, and who realize that this is a fight worth joining.


Thanks to Eric Anderson Jr., Steve Scott, and Elise Nakhnikian for critical readings of this post. Many thanks to Jennifer Raff for her feedback on this piece and the opportunity to publish my work.

Alexander Nakhnikian is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience and cognitive science at Indiana University, and an instructor at Monroe County Martial Arts in Bloomington, Indiana. His research focuses on neural dynamics in behaving organisms, novel methodologies in data analysis, and mathematical modeling. You can reach him on twitter @GrumpyArmenian.

12 thoughts on “Cutting off our nose to spite our face: Scientific funding in the age of sequestration

  1. Alexander Nakhnikian September 2, 2013 / 10:35 am

    Professor George Rebec also deserve an acknowledgement for helpful discussions of NIH’s funding system.

  2. Swarn Gill September 2, 2013 / 5:29 pm

    Well written! Although I don’t know how many people think science is important. It seems like most people fail to see how science plays a part in their daily lives. I also think that a lot of our economic success as a nation has to do with government support into science and technology. While the payoff is not immediate it was a large source of fuel for the economy, perhaps in part by the fact that manufacturing occurred largely in this country rather than overseas. Perhaps that is why it is not paying off as it once did economically. However it seems that once you start cutting funding to science it is a positive feedback loop that makes you get less and less returns out of your investment. Thus leading to further cuts. At some point you have to trust in the long term investment because if we can come up with something that nobody else has we may even be the country that is most likely to start manufacturing as well. We quite simply lead the world less and less in areas of innovation. In the end it feels like all we’ll be left with us fast food restaurants and the entertainment industry. That can’t be good!

  3. Adam Perrotta September 4, 2013 / 9:12 pm

    I agree that sequestration is bad for science, and I support increasing the NIH budget by at least an order of magnitude (I lean libertarian, but our government wastes far more money on far less important things). However, I believe that the current mechanism to fund science is in need of a 21st century upgrade. Scientists must engage the public directly, without the government as middleman. This means setting up social network pages that explain the research to the layperson. This means requesting monetary donations (via PayPal). It also means diligent correspondence with donors. Far too many individuals want to get involved (either directly or indirectly) with science, but they are often excluded one way or another.

    • anakhnikian September 5, 2013 / 12:23 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Adam. I really appreciate your support for the scientific community. I’m very passionate about engagement between scientists and non-scienctists, though I’m not as confident as you are that crowd sourcing is the best way to fund research. Explaining research in terms the public can understand is crucial, and it’s our responsibility to keep people in the loop about the kind of work their tax dollars are funding. At the same time, actually deciding which projects to fund is very similar to the process by which we decide which papers to publish. It takes years (usually around a decade) to get good at reviewing papers in one’s own area of expertise. The peer-review process also underlies funding. Really getting into the meat of a project requires a specialized language and set of concepts that are unique to a given field. I can tell students in an introductory course that a dynamic system (a nerve cell, the planets in our solar system, anything developing over time) is stable if there is a state (like the orbit of the earth) that persists over time and “corrects” for deviations. I can also tell them that, given a continuous dynamical law ds/dt = f(s), the point “x” is a stable fixed point in the system’s phase space if all the real parts of the eigenvalues of the Jacobian of f(s) evaluated at x are less than zero. The second sentence is much more precise and rich in information than the first. It would, however, be pointless to use the second sentence with novice students because decoding that information requires specialized knowledge, as does any complicated task such as flying an airplane, running a business, or performing open heart surgery. This is not to say that people who don’t know the first thing about a Jacobian or an eigenvalue are stupid or ignorant, it simply means that they do not possess my depth of knowledge about the subject, just as I don’t know the first thing about building a house. The government is not a “middleman” in my view. It’s an entity that makes money and administrative infrastructures available for experts who can then decide how to allocate resources. The public has a vested interest in science and a right to have a say in the process, but ultimately non-experts should not decide which projects to fund anymore than they should decide which papers are worth publishing. By the same token, a person has a right to play an active role in his or her own health care, but one must nevertheless trust a competent physician to decide what treatment is best for one’s condition.

      • Adam Perrotta September 5, 2013 / 4:29 pm

        Thank you. I am actually an aspiring scientist myself (non-thesis MS in biochemistry, but no PhD, unfortunately). I may not have been as clear as I intended. I wanted to say that crowd sourcing should supplement current science funding resources, not replace them. The point that I wanted to convey is that government funding will always be at the mercy of budgets and politics. It is a given that governments will cut spending in certain areas from time to time. It is a given that certain politicians are-how shall I say it-not overly friendly to science. Many people in the citizen science movement (I volunteer at a biotechnology citizen science lab) are VERY scientifically literate. I certainly do not believe in layperson peer review (an oxymoron). One does not need a complete understanding of a principle to be actively engaged in it; one can always trust the experts to know what is really going on. I have not taken a course in earth science since 8th grade, but I could still read the abstracts of a PNAS or Nature publication on ocean acidification, and contribute a nominal amount of money. I also believe that crowd sourcing is, at best, long term and supportive as a remedy, rather than immediate and comprehensive. I also believe that crowd sourcing, while inadequate today, will likely gain popularity in the coming decades.

        • Eric Mills September 6, 2013 / 12:03 am

          You make an interesting proposal, and I think that pushing scientists to be more directly accountable to the public is a good idea. I worry, though, that crowd-sourced funding would provide as much or more benefit to special interest groups and pseudo-science populists than to actual science. While I have no doubt that there are many competent citizen-scientists, the anti-vaccine movement and the climate change deniers make it clear that there are also many people willing to follow silver-tongued nonsense.

          • Adam Perrotta September 6, 2013 / 12:38 am

            I understand your argument, although I think the risk is probably low. Crowd source funded science can and should be subject to conventional peer review mechanisms. Further, there could be an advantage to crowd source funding of pseudo-science. Its backers, now having to pay out of their own pockets, might see it for the sham that it is. Of course, that is optimistic.

        • Alexander Nakhnikian September 6, 2013 / 12:02 pm

          That’s an interesting suggestions, thanks for clarifying what you have in mind. I’m sympathetic to Eric’s concerns about the influence of politics and pseudoscience in such a system; however, we already have climate deniers, anti-vaccination zealots, and young earth creationists deciding policy at the federal level, so how much worse could it get? The big question is “how to we organize and distribute funds?” One option is a not-for-profit dedicated to seeking out and distributing public funding. Allocation could be decided by panels composed of both professionals and lay people, with the lay members having input but perhaps no vote in scoring grants. There’s no denying that such a system would make people more engaged with science instead of feeling like spectators. There are definitely things that will have to change in the next twenty years, the traditional track for researchers and research institutions is dying. My greatest concern is maintaining support for non-profitable research. If the corporate model becomes intrenched at every level of science then we’re in trouble.

          • Adam Perrotta September 6, 2013 / 8:57 pm

            I think scientists need to make an ad campaign to illustrate the real consequences of funding cuts. This could be done on YouTube or internet memes. There are a lot of pro-science Facebook groups. Maybe someone like Chris Mooney can be influential.

  4. Steve Holderness September 6, 2013 / 10:46 pm

    This has been a problem with our “congress critters” for the past 30 years. Remember how they handled the Super Collider Funding? The basic science and engineering that CERN and Europe have benefited from would have been America’s but for the short-sightedness of Congress. I am afraid it is endemic in the whole Congressional institution these days, all they are concerned with is winning and dominance over their opponent and opposing party. I don’t know how to solve that problem other than to keep advocating for better congress critters to be elected.

    • Alexander Nakhnikian September 8, 2013 / 5:56 pm

      I’d forgotten about that. I think there’s a way to encourage elections of better congress critters using Adam’s suggestion: Take our case to the public through YouTube and other media platforms. Make it clear just how much damage has been done to our status as a research powerhouse and, more important, how many lives have been lost or damaged due to cuts in medical research. Then let people know who voted for those cuts and paint a clear picture of how those votes led to such dire consequences.

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