Guest post: It’s hard to overstate what a disaster it is

Originally a comment by Claire on Decline.

The US’s leading position in scientific research is what brought me to this country in the first place. I did my postdoctoral training at the NIH, and when I moved on to a faculty position, the recent years of tight budgets were a concern. As the Atlantic reporter notes, the funding lines have been very tight for many years. The leading research grant mentioned is called the R01, and it’s true that the average age of a first R01 awardee has been climbing for years too.

What is not appreciated is that because about 80% of extramural funding is already committed for grants awarded in previous years (the R01 is typically a 4 or 5 year grant, other mechanisms are also often multi-year affairs), so by slashing NIH’s budget so dramatically, it basically means no new grants will be funded and existing grants may even have to be cut.

There are other knock on effects of tighter funding. Every hour I spend writing grant applications is an hour not spent doing actual science or writing up work I’ve already done. I submitted a dozen grant applications last year. I’ll probably submit at least that many or more this year. And I’m one of the lucky ones, my university doesn’t require that I cover any proportion of my salary until I get tenure. Many of my friends are supposed to cover anywhere from 30-75% of their salary within 3 years of being hired. That’s always got the potential to be stressful, but in the current funding climate, it’s actively pushing good researchers out of academia and into the arms of industry. Nothing wrong with industry, but they don’t do a lot of the basic research that underpins each field.

If the NIH is unable to make any new grants over the next few years, it’s hard to overstate what a disaster that is. Private foundations and public charities cannot pick up the slack. Training programs that get cut are hard to restart because the infrastructure and the expertise goes away. And once training programs vanish, the jobs they supplied a trained workforce for has to recruit from other countries. Except if the Trump administration also cuts immigration, then maybe those posts will just go unfilled.

Some people may think that what I and my fellow scientists do is so removed from their everyday life that making our lives harder won’t affect them. I guarantee that it will. It might not be obvious, at least at first. But as the US falls behind in scientific research in all disciplines, a new powerhouse will emerge. And businesses who rely on that basic research for their applied research, may decide it’s easier to just move to whichever country comes out on top.

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