Science Budget Issues Lead to Scientific Exodus

Alfred Nobel

Even if you're a Nobel laureate, getting your science funded can be difficult, especially in the current, post-sequester fiscal climate.

Just ask Michael Levitt. In the year he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry—2013—he had a resubmitted proposal rejected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "It is almost certain that that money was not received because of the sequester," Levitt said during a panel discussion Tuesday at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"I doubt very much that in today's environment I would have been able to do the work I did in the early 5 to 10 years that led to my sitting here today and more importantly the discoveries that resulted from it." —James Rothman

But Levitt doesn't consider his funding struggles very important; he is, obviously, an established scientist, and he did his Nobel-winning work when he was much younger. "[T]he real problem is not what happens to the people who are very senior in their career," he said.  The real problem is that young scientists—between 30 and 40—are not getting money to support their research. "The number of people less than 40 who get an NIH grant nowadays has gone to zero," he said.

After a question from a member of the audience (at about the 1:12:20 mark in the YouTube video below) shifted the discussion toward the current science-funding crisis, the scientists on the panel (which included all of this year's U.S. winners of Nobel prizes) quickly agreed that the crisis is a very serious problem, exacerbated by the sequester but caused by a gradual downward funding trend over years.

Randy Schekman, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with James Rothman and Thomas Südhof, described the situation as "an unmitigated disaster." Rothman, though, called sequestration "a noise-level problem; it will go away. There's an underlying problem that is much more profound: The budget of the NIH has declined in purchasing power by about 28 percent over the last 7 to 8 years." Furthermore, he said, a larger share of the NIH budget is going to projects dictated by the government. "I doubt very much that in today's environment I would have been able to do the work I did in the early 5 to 10 years that led to my sitting here today and, more importantly the discoveries that resulted from it."

One unfortunate consequence of the funding crisis is that the United States is no longer an attractive destination for science immigrants, some panelists said. That's regrettable because, as Südhof put it, "immigrants have made a tremendous contribution to the United States." Indeed, "The exodus of scientists from Europe [in the middle of the last century] is what started the present day conditions in the United States, where science is doing so well." 

Today, Rothman said, America seems to be experiencing a similar exodus, though for very different reasons. In Europe, "50 years of absolute world leadership in chemistry, physics, medicine, biochemistry, went away in 5 years. It took 50 years to rebuild. We are absolutely as vulnerable today."

The exodus is occurring, Schekman added, because the United States is no longer attractive to immigrant scientists. "We are seeing people return to their countries because of the funding problems here," he said. "I can cite specific examples from my own institution: Scholars from Europe, scholars from Asia who came because of the opportunities here but who are now returning to their countries because those countries, unlike ours, see the promise of investment in basic science." 

It's not just immigrant scientists who are flight risks, Rothman added. "I actually advise my students not to stay in the United States," he said. "I tell them, please, you'll be good for a year or two, on your startup package, but … if you want to do something that's not incremental, … you should go to any of the countries that were mentioned before. I have to say, frankly, if I were 10 years younger, that's exactly what I would do."

A video of the event is embedded below. (We've set the video to start at about 11 minutes and 40 seconds, since that is when the event itself starts. Warning: Loud distortion starts about 21 minutes in, and continues intermittently for several minutes.)

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