Sequester may shutter CU faculty research, labs

Christopher Lowry, left, with doctoral candidate Evan Paul
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Christopher Lowry is working on several new treatments for depression, even on the possibility of vaccinating against it. These treatments could improve the lives of millions of people. The only problem is, since the sequester, he can’t find anyone to pay him to finish his research.

“I have been continuously funded since 1995, and brought in millions and millions of dollars. I am not actually planning on having money after June 2014,” says Lowry. “Whatever I was doing before isn’t good enough anymore.”

Lowry, a scientist in the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, is not the only scientist who has not been able to get new grants.

“Scientists around the country are bracing for a dark age,” Lowry says. “You hear about a lot of labs closing or thinking about closing.”

According to the university, Boulder’s faculty attracted 7.6 percent fewer grant dollars this fiscal year than in the previous one. That means there was a budget decrease of about $29 million.

The federal sequestration cuts that went into effect on March 1 cut the budgets of two major arms of the federal government that provide research grants: the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. According to the National Institutes of Health, the NIH is issuing approximately 700 fewer grants in 2013 than it did in 2012, and slashing 5 percent, or $1.5 billion, off of this fiscal year’s budget. According to Lowry, this puts the NIH grant acceptance rate at the lowest in history. The National Science Foundation has had its budget reduced by 5 percent and is issuing approximately 1,000 fewer grants in 2013.

Patricia Rankin, associate vice chancellor for research at CU, cautioned that “one of the things that makes this a bit complicated is that CU’s fiscal year is offset from the government’s by three months. There’s a possibility that some money will come in later than usual,” Rankin says. “We’re hearing anecdotally that we are down less than other universities. Some of them are down more like 10 percent. We’re doing not as badly as you might have feared, given the size of the actual sequester cut.”

“The perfect storm,” Lowry says. “That’s what I would call it.”

He says that under former President George W. Bush, and in 2008 under President Barack Obama as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, federal funding for science expanded dramatically.

“You’ve had this big expansion, you’ve had this big investment, put in big infrastructure, and now it’s happening, there’s no more money, flat budgets,” he says. “The faucet has been turned off; nothing is stepping forward to replace NIH funding.”

Lowry says that flat budgets are particularly hard to deal with after an investment boom, because you have more people competing.

Lowry’s lab does research in the mental field. He is working on vaccinating against affective mental disorders like depression, as well as novel treatments for depression, like full-body infrared heating, which involves lying in a device similar to a tanning bed. He says he has published a paper demonstrating that this treatment is effective. His lab has also patented novel pharmaceutical drugs for depression and is working on developing them further.

Robert Spencer, a CU neuroscientist, is also struggling. Spencer studies the neurobiology of stress. He says the NIH was interested in his research because a number of disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, show neuroendocrine abnormalities in the brain regions that Spencer studies and are affected by stress. His research could help us understand the biomechanics of these disorders and potentially lead to better treatments, he says.

After 25 years of continuous NIH funding, in the spring of 2011, at the end of a five-year grant, Spencer felt like his lab had made a lot of progress and was in a good position to continue. He applied for a grant. NIH grants are rated in a peer review process by other scientists in the field. According to Spencer, typically grants ranked in the top 10 percent in the mental health institute of the NIH are funded. Spencer’s grant was in the top 4 percent, and in what he calls an “unprecedented decision,” he was denied the typical five-year grant. He was given a two-year grant and told to finish off his research. The grant started in June of 2011, during the first fiscal cliff scare, before the cuts had even gone into effect. Spencer says that because of the uncertain budget situation in Washington, the NIH had already begun to cut back to prepare for potential cuts.

Spencer says he believes CU is especially vulnerable to these cuts because most departments rely entirely on external funding.

“It’s a real concern for everyone on campus,” Spencer says. “I have talked to colleagues who are always well-funded by the NIH, and many of them have lost their grants. Grad student support is dependent on external funding. … The consequences are very real. It’s not just Chicken Little.”

Spencer says that if this trend continues, the campus will lose a lot of active labs — as well as opportunities for students. Once a lab gets shut down, it is nearly impossible to reopen it, he says. It takes two years to train new people to work in the lab. It takes three years of steady research, gathering preliminary data and working out methodology, to be competitive for a grant. “If a lab closes,” says Spencer, “you lose that investment.”

Without a new grant, Lowry says he will not be able to develop his new treatments enough to put them on the market, but he doesn’t think he will have to close his lab entirely.

“I could leave stuff in freezers; the university is not going to cut me off and turn off the electricity, at least there’s no precedent for that. But I won’t have any employees, I won’t have any technicians or postdocs. I won’t be able to pay my graduate students in the summer, which I always do. … So what are they going to do? They’re going to go work at Pizza Hut, or go paint houses or drive a limousine. Is that really an effective use of that person’s skills? Obviously not.”

Lowry has already decided he will not be taking on any more graduate students. Spencer has also decided he is not taking on more grad students because of a lack of funding.

According to Spencer, the neuroscience department has typically taken on four to five graduate students each year. In the past couple of years, the department has only taken two.

“Now, we don’t have enough bodies to make some of our grad courses viable,” Spencer says.

This year, according to graduate admissions assistant Jill Skarstad, the CU evolutionary biology department is only accepting 12 students instead of the usual 22 because of reduced funding.

In 2012-13, CU admitted 138 fewer grad students than in 2011-12, although this cannot be entirely attributed to the sequester.

Patrick Stendel and Adam Huckaby, both CU alumni and professional research assistants in CU labs, agree that graduate students are the ones most affected by the cuts.

They say that the training grant for students has been cut, which forces students to spend less time on experiments and more time on other work. Stendel and Huckaby agree that lab jobs are currently very hard to get. Stendel’s lab has cut one of its two paid professional research assistant positions and is filling the gap by using unpaid undergraduates. Lowry says that lab jobs are getting more competitive for everybody.

“I know a very prominent neuroscientist in the U.S. who had an opening for a technician, which is an entry-level job a lot of people take out of college,” says Lowry. “There were 65 applicants; many of them were M.A.s and Ph.Ds.”

Recent efforts by the university to forge closer relationships with industry are being driven at least in part by an effort to replace lost federal money with corporate funding. The campus created a “Strategic Advisory Council” largely populated with current and former business executives and venture capitalists last April, and launched an “Office of Industry Collaboration” this summer, assuring faculty that the tighter industry ties will not translate into greater corporate control over curricula and other areas protected from outside pressures by academic freedom. Caroline Himes, director of CU’s Office of Industry Collaboration, has told Boulder Weekly that as federal grants become more competitive, securing industryprovided revenue could become a critical way to keep labs running.

Spencer says he worries that grad students and postdocs will see advisors struggling to get grants and won’t want to pursue a career in science.

“Even if things turn around in three or four years, we may have lost a great cohort of future scientists … hopefully not a whole generation,” Spencer says.

“I research quarks, which is about as impractical a subject as you could research,” says Rankin, the associate vice chancellor for research. “But it’s interesting, and it’s exciting, understanding fundamental physics has an impact on applied physics down the line. If you think about all the medical devices we have for diagnostics now, like PET scans and nuclear magnetic resonance, that’s an application of physics that was done 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. Yes, that’s now applied physics, but we wouldn’t have had the applied physics if we hadn’t had the basic physics. … Cutting basic research might seem like a good short-term plan, but it’s not a good long-term plan. … It’s really like assuming you can grow crops without putting seed in the ground.”

“It’s cutting the whole national investment in research off at the knees,” Lowry says. “If what’s happening to me is indicative of a national trend, there is going to be a whole generation of people being diverted away from science.”