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Funding Cuts Ravage Academic Laboratories

Jobless Men
CREDIT: John E. Allen/WPA

According to several predictions, one of the direst impacts on science of U.S. budget sequestration will be the wide-scale layoff of lab personnel. Last spring, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins predicted that some 20,000 scientists would lose jobs as a result of sequester-related funding reductions.

Science Careers reached out to lab heads and research deans at large and small research universities across the country to try and assess the damage. These interviews suggest that labs are indeed being forced to lay off scientists—mostly nontenure-track staff—but it's difficult to untangle sequestration's effects from longer-term funding woes. Officials we spoke to attributed the recent layoffs to a decade of faltering funding; sequestration, they indicated, is just the latest (if devastating) blow.

"PIs aren't going to let themselves go, so it's going to be trimming around the edges wherever possible," —Benjamin Corb

Two articles in our sister publications come out today that further explore the effects of sequestration on the U.S. research enterprise. Read one article in this week's issue of Science (subscription required), and the other in ScienceInsider.

Under sequestration, which kicked in on 1 March, funding for academic research from U.S. federal sources, including NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), was cut 5% for the 2013 fiscal year. Most existing grants had their funding cut by about 5%—some more; some less. Those agencies also expect to award fewer grants. As a result, labs funded by federal research grants have less money for salaries, lab equipment, and supplies than they used to. It is clear that for those hoping to win new funding, or renew an expiring grant, an already difficult challenge has gotten harder.

The salaries of lab employees, and even some principal investigators (PIs), are paid by these grants, so lost funding often means lost jobs.

Effects of sequestration

One source of evidence about layoffs in science is a report released in August by the Washington, D.C.–based American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). The report, Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, is the result of a survey of approximately 3700 scientists, the majority of them academic biologists and biomedical researchers who hold faculty positions. About a third of the respondents reported having laid off a scientist in their lab since 2010, and 55% reported that they knew a colleague who had lost a job in that time frame. Also, 3.1% reported losing a job themselves, and 7.6% said they expected to lose their job soon.

According to NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, there are some 137,800 full-time faculty researchers in academia. If a third of those scientists laid off at least one member of their lab in the past 3 years, that would mean approximately 46,000 scientists have lost jobs over that time period. These are rough estimates, but they give an idea of the likely scale of the layoffs.

Some Perspectives on the Budget Cuts

ASBMB's report, Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, collected anonymous statements from respondents regarding the risk of job loss as a result of diminished science funding. Here is a smattering of those statements:

"It is disheartening to be at the start of what I hope will be a strong and successful scientific career and have to wonder if I will even get a job, be able to fund my research and have hope of being a competitive scientist."—graduate student from California State University, Fullerton

"As a department chair, I have several recently promoted associate professors who were well funded as assistant professors, have excellent publication records and are doing exciting, groundbreaking biomedical research. All of them are struggling to obtain renewed funding for their successful research projects. If they go for several years without getting grants, their research careers will be effectively over, and we will have lost their research talents from the pool of active scientists."—professor from the University of Southern California

"All American universities rely on scientific agencies to fund academic research, meaning cuts to these budgets eliminate training in research. We cannot afford, as a nation, to go forward without a trained cadre of (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals."—assistant professor from Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota

It's impossible to say whether the ASBMB sample is representative of academic science as a whole, notes Benjamin Corb, ASBMB's public affairs director, but it does at least indicate that layoffs are both a reality and a threat in academia. It's also impossible, he says, to blame a particular fiscal cause. "It's hard to make a very clear connection to sequester, because sequester has only been in place for 6 or 7 months," Corb says. Funding has been tight for some time now, he says, and massive layoffs were inevitable. "The sequester is just the catalyst that makes it all go boom."

Benjamin Corb

Benjamin Corb

Courtesy of ASBMB

Courtesy of ASBMB
Benjamin Corb

Who is losing jobs?

What's clear, and unsurprising, is that the majority of layoffs affect nontenured scientists, from technicians and postdocs to nontenure-track faculty. "PIs aren't going to let themselves go, so it's going to be trimming around the edges wherever possible," Corb says.

Will those laid-off scientists be replaced anytime soon?  According to Corb, PIs aren't hopeful. "I've talked to a lot of people who said, 'You know, I was going to add one or two new positions to my lab, but I'm not doing that now because I don't know what my funding level is going to be.' "

Nontenure track, for now

Several department heads Science Careers reached out to declined to comment on whether their labs had laid off scientists recently. A vice dean for a major medical school research program in California, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Science Careers that his lab has indeed seen layoffs, but he wouldn't say how many. Like Corb he doesn't hold sequestration responsible for the cuts. The funding climate has been dismal for years, he says; layoffs would have happened in the near future with or without budget sequestration. Also like Corb, he says that those who have lost their jobs have "almost invariably been postdocs, staff scientists, or other nontenure-track researchers."

That squares with what Karl Matlin, a professor of surgical research at the University of Chicago, told Science Careers. Matlin says that five researchers—a postdoc, two technicians, and two nontenure-track research assistant professors—have lost jobs in his department in the past several months. He has stayed in touch with several of the laid-off scientists and notes that the two research assistant professors both opted to leave research, citing the poor prospects for steady employment. One now teaches science courses at a small local college, and the other took a job writing clinical treatment guidelines for a medical association.

"The sequester is like the straw that broke the camel's back," Matlin says. The bigger problems, he argues, are the years-long trend of declining federal grant support for research and the degree to which the salaries of university-employed scientists are dependent on that funding. "In the United States, since World War II when this basic system was created, research has been a kind of Ponzi scheme in the sense that when the government provides grants, the institution leverages the indirect costs to expand research … and no institution has the resources to support the size of the faculty they have, especially in the biomedical sciences." When the promise of federal funding becomes uncertain, the system starts to implode. "Eventually you reach a point where there's not enough money in the system and things fall apart." It would have happened soon with or without sequestration, he says.

Karl Matlin

Karl Matlin

Courtesy of the University of Chicago

Courtesy of the University of Chicago
Karl Matlin

Are PIs next?

For now it's nontenure-track researchers who are being hit the hardest, but it's only a matter of time before PIs will start losing their jobs, Matlin believes. The University of Chicago has offered bridge funding to tenured researchers who just missed out on NIH grants and plan to reapply, he says, but that's a temporary fix. Bridge funding can help buffer scientists from a short-term funding downturn, but Matlin doesn't expect sequestration to be revoked, or congress to increase federal science funding anytime soon. And if more people lose their grants, "it's going to be really difficult," he says.

Matlin predicts that when NIH and NSF award fewer grants during the upcoming fiscal year, more layoffs will occur at academic research labs across the country—and that this time the layoffs will hit tenure-track faculty members. "I imagine that as funds get even tighter, assistant professors without grant funding will be dismissed more often at the time of their reappointment (4 years) than at the time they are put up for promotion (6-7 years)," Matlin writes in an e-mail. "Tenured faculty will be more difficult to lay off. However, I would expect more 'encouraged' retirements."

Perhaps most regrettable of all, the researchers who manage to win new grants or renew their funding—and as a result, keep their jobs—will likely become more conservative in their research aims as a result of the lower paylines, Matlin speculates. "Nobody will try anything new," he says. "There's no room for that. There has to be certainty in the system for people to be innovative."

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