For a while, I have been following and writing on the terrible science funding crunch situation in the US as a result of sequestration, whose ill effects were compounded by the period of government shutdown. I heard the alarm bells at the end of 2010 (when my blog was still a part of Nature Blogs); it scared me to find out how much even the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) seemed to agree with me on this. The danger became imminent in the fall of 2012, when a legislative alert from my professional body, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), laid out in great details the alarming impact of sequestration – an indiscriminate budget cut imposed on on science and public health programs, amongst other things. And going against all good sense, the sequester was implemented at the beginning of March, 2013; at that time, I caught a glimpse of the horrendous future impacts of the self-inflicted trauma that was the sequester, on the nation’s well-being.
Last fall, I wrote with a great deal of concern about the deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States, including real-life examples of scientists in jeopardy highlighted in the Huffington Post. In another post, I pointed out how sequestration-mandated cuts to funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), coupled with the ill-conceived government shutdown, were seriously imperiling invaluable and irreplaceable scientific research. Although the shutdown was rescinded by the third week of October 2013, it left behind grave concerns about long-term fallouts, especially in less visible areas associated with scientific research in this country.
US citizens amongst readers and well-wishers of this blog, here is an important legislative alert via the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), of which I am a member. I have shared previous legislative alerts with you – to inform you and enable your participation in this nation’s democratic processes, so that your voice reaches your elected representatives. This time is no different, and this is as crucial as before. I received it via email this morning (the emphasis on the links by bold-face is mine); please read and act.
So… It was done. Since late last night, the shutdown has been over, the government offices re-opened this morning, and Federal workers are back at work. The worked-out deal in its final form provides for appropriations at the current (post-sequester) spending levels for all Federal agencies through January 15, 2014 (which includes back pay to Federal workers who had been put on furlough), and extends the Treasury’s borrowing authority through February 7. The leaders of the legislative bodies have agreed to work towards a financial framework leading to subsequent tax and entitlement reform legislation. Meanwhile, economists have come up with a figure of US $24 billion as a cost of the 16-day shutdown kabuki theater, made up entirely of lost government productivity and revenue, and even then, the nation’s Legislative has simply kicked the can down the road, to the beginning of next year. We may very well find ourselves again in a similar mess come January or February, if broader reforms are not undertaken and if sequestration isn’t altered or repealed.
As the US government shutdown and the consequent budgetary stalemate rolls into its third week, I contemplate that I am, indeed, one of the fortunate ones – in that my work, in a private educational institution, does not depend directly upon the US Federal government, and therefore, has not been hampered to a significant extent, yet, although some collaborative work with an NIH division has been put on limbo. Many of my friends, some of whom work at the NIH, have not been so fortunate – just what I was so apprehensive about. Many of them have been put on furlough, which accounts for a whopping 73% of NIH employees. Some who were made provisionally ‘essential’, so that they could have time to wrap up their already-started work, have been under intense scrutiny, and are being rendered ‘non-essential’ (therefore, furloughed) as time passes. (Update: Read Sara Reardon‘s report in Nature News on how research work at the NIH is on the path of a slow decay, and how researchers are suffering in unexpected ways.)
On the heels of my previous post on the severe impact of the shutdown on US biomedical research community and the general populace, comes this statement from the NIH. I present it here in its entirety.
I am not a citizen of the United States. I come from a country where political demonstrations against the government are commonplace, and work-strikes (called ‘bandh‘ in the vernacular, literally meaning ‘cessation’) organized by trade unions and/or political parties are an accepted means of protest. But it is completely inconceivable to me that in a democracy, the entire economy, the governance of the entire country is being held hostage by a small, vocal, well-funded minority, who did not like the outcome of the last popular mandate. To me, this action seems utterly irresponsible and undermining the whole democratic process. Anyway, I would not like to use this space to discuss politics as such, but I want to put on record what I have learnt of the impact this unseemly ‘government shutdown’ has on scientific research in the US.
A quick post this morning. In the Guardian, I came across (courtesy my friend and erstwhile NatureBlogs colleague, Dr. Austin Eliott) this Open Letter to the Spanish Prime Minister from a Spanish researcher, an Astrophysicist no less, whom the current circumstances have forced to leave Spain and take her trade elsewhere. Dr. Amaya Moro-Martín’s letter (translated English text in the Guardian), written with brilliant, acerbic wit, paints a tragic picture of the status of scientific research in that country and how it is mired in countless bureaucratic impediments. She contends that this, along with an egregious lack of funding, is what has forced her and many others (link in the published essay) to abandon Spain in search of better futures elsewhere.
It is, indeed, a sad, sad situation. Dr. Moro-Martín’s position at the Spanish National Research Council bore the name of Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), a Nobel Laureate pathologist and neuroscientist from Spain, who had transformed the study of the nervous system. I am sure he would have been devastated by this turn of events. As Dr. Moro-Martín wrote, what is even more galling is the resounding silence from the Mariano Rajoy government on this predicament of the Spanish scientists.
In the comments, at least two individuals have pointed out that a very similar situation exists in Portugal and Greece. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well at all for the future of science in the EU.
I wish Dr. Moro-Martín all the very best for her transition to NASA. A transcontinental move, with family, isn’t the easiest thing to do, and having to start a professional life almost from scratch and rebuild relationships can be a daunting task. A distinguished researcher of her stature should be welcomed with open arms in any scientific community. In that respect, one niggling question that continues to bother me: is the situation with science funding much better in the US currently? I hope Dr. Moro-Martín is not stepping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.
Many of you know that I have been extremely concerned about the continuing deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States. I have tried to highlight how Science funding and the future prosperity of this nation have been put on the line via drastic spending cuts. A piece of heartening news came through last month in which a proposed Senate Bill sought to boost the NIH budget. I wrote at that time: “I hope the American political leadership wakes up soon to the loss of intellectual capital they are incurring due to the sequester.”
Fat chance of that, it seems, as time passes on. Today, in Huffington Post, noted political reporter Sam Stein wrote a long essay in which he exposed the ugly effects of the sequester already weighing heavy on scientific research in the US. He has interviewed real researchers in different universities whose invaluable research work is in clear and present danger of being shut down. As the essay goes on to say:
Over the past few months, The Huffington Post has set out to understand the breadth of these cuts. The roughly two dozen scientists and academic officials interviewed were naturally distraught over the impact sequestration is having on their own work and institutions. The nature of the business is to assume you’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
But beyond that, they shuddered at the damage being done to the field at large. Yes, they conceded, the NIH’s budget remains large at $29 billion. But without more investment, the nation’s role as an international leader in scientific research is at risk. Moreover, the money being cut now will have lasting damage, both economic and medical, as cures to diseases are left undiscovered and treatments left unearthed.
A lot of people were hoping for the benevolence of for-profit private parties to keep the research efforts afloat. But as Stein points out, it is not a viable proposition. The times have been so desperate that several scientists are actively considering the idea of setting up shop in other, more conducive countries where they can carry on their work unimpeded.
The saddest and most dire message that Stein has portrayed? This:
… (At the University of Virginia) Patrick Grant, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, said his lab was down to two researchers from a peak of a dozen. His federal funding ran out last year.
“I wouldn’t advise people to go into science,” he said. “I think it’s a tough career to follow. It’s not the career that I thought it was, or that it was for me a couple of years ago.”
Do go read the HuffPo piece. It is disheartening and reeks of despair, but it needs to be read and the message spread. They also have a project to record the experiences of real people affected by the sequester, and are asking for input from the reading public.
How are y’all doing? Me, I am scared sh… Let’s say, into a constipative mode. The exact situation that I had worried about last September has finally come to pass. Late on the night of Friday, the 1st of March, the studied intransigence of the Congressional Republicans on fiscal matters bore fruit and President Obama signed the order that put the across-the-board, indiscriminate, $85 billion spending-cuts (a.k.a sequestration, or the Sequester) into grim effect.