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Science research budgets run dry

Scientists spend their time working to find funds instead of cures


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - OHSUs Rachel Clemens-Grisham anticipated a future in scientific research, but with federal funding cuts for science she and colleagues are looking atalternative careers.Rachel Clemens-Grisham has wanted to be a scientist since high school, when she and her science club classmates collected water samples from ponds and tested them for pollutants.

A college biology degree led to a doctorate program in molecular biology (Clemens-Grisham will defend her dissertation this month). For the past five years she has worked as a researcher in the lab of Oregon Health & Science University associate professor Teresa Nicolson, investigating how proteins move from one area of a cell to another.

If you had asked Clemens-Grisham five years ago where she was heading, she would have said she was looking forward to a career as a university faculty scientist. She would pursue her own research, probably something to do with neurobiology, with graduate students assisting her.

Talent isn’t a problem. Nicolson says Clemens-Grisham has the skills to be productive in the lab and to become a fine scientist, conducting her own studies some day.

Talent also isn’t a problem for Maureen Hoatlin, who co-chairs OHSU’s rare disease consortium. In 2011 Hoatlin was awarded a patent after discovering a new way to screen compounds that block or amplify molecular pathways involved in cancer. Hoatlin believes that in time her discovery could help lead to a breakthrough in cancer research. But her research stopped when her funding from the National Institutes of Health disappeared last year.

“It works, but we have to stop working on it,” Hoatlin says. “I’m still looking for money on that. Nobody but me is going to pick it up.”

Hoatlin and Clemens-Grisham have been pursuing basic research, traditionally performed at universities where faculty members get government grant funding through the National Institutes of Health. Basic research is less concerned with producing a new drug or therapy than with filling the scientific pipeline with new ideas that others might use.

But in recent years NIH funding has declined in terms of real dollars. And this year’s federal sequestration budget set off a dramatic shift in the world of science. Basic research grants are increasingly hard for even established scientists such as Hoatlin to secure. The most devastating result of the reduced funding, say scientists in Portland and around the country, might be the impact on future scientists.

Clemens-Grisham recently applied for a job as a forensic scientist in Washington state. She’s thinking about a government job advising on science policy. Science writing appeals to her, too. And she’d consider an industry job, working for a pharmaceutical company.

For the past five years, Clemens-Grisham says, she has been watching the faculty principal investigators around her spend more of their time trying to secure funding than actually doing experiments. Eventually, she saw too many of the faculty members lose the NIH funding that had been sustaining their experiments for years. Research science no longer promised Clemens-Grisham, 35, a stable career, so she’s looking elsewhere.

“We will lose an entire generation of scientists as a result of this, and I don’t think I am exaggerating,” says Mary Stenzel-Poore, senior associate dean for research at OHSU. “Scientists are absolutely dropping out of the workforce.”

Talent looks elsewhere

The number of research projects funded by NIH has declined every year for the last decade. Stenzel-Poore says many OHSU scientists employ one or two Ph.D. researchers in their labs, down from an average of 10 when funding levels peaked in 2008 and 2009.

Hoatlin has employed between four and six lab scientists since 1997. With her most recent NIH funding applications rejected, her lab stands empty.

“I see lab spaces that used to be teeming with people that only have a couple of people now,” Hoatlin says.

Hoatlin understands how the NIH cuts appear to young researchers such as Clemens-Grisham.

“These students and trainees see how my life is,” Hoatlin say. “And they think, ‘I don’t want that life.’ They say, ‘I don’t think I can sit in my office and continuously write grants that are unlikely to be funded.’ “

Clemens-Grisham says none of the Ph.D. researchers she’s worked with are continuing on the track toward full-time scientific research.

Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, who moved to OHSU in 1989 to head the Aging and Alzheimer’s program, says in his field of Alzheimer’s research the NIH has opted to fund three expensive studies at the expense of a wider range of research. Those three studies are looking at drugs that might affect production of a protein called amyloid — the popular model for looking at Alzheimer’s.

“It’s a big bet,” Kaye says. “Let’s say that doesn’t work. Then what do we do? Do we wait another 20 years to develop a new strategy?”

Reduced funding also has led to a more cautious attitude on the part of NIH officials, Kaye says. Until the last few years, grant applications were awarded or declined within about six months. His lab submitted a grant proposal 18 months ago that received an excellent score and likely will be accepted. But 18 months is a long time in science, he says.

The study is supposed to use technology such as motion sensors to determine how seniors move about their rooms in retirement homes and then send that information back to nurses or activity directors in real time so that they can address problems before they worsen. But the sensor technology mentioned in the grant proposal has changed since the application was sent in.

“It’s making the science obsolete by the time the awards come in,” Kaye says.

One bright spot

Stenzel-Poore estimates that research funding at OHSU is down about 10 percent. Even grants that NIH chooses to award are coming in for less than the amount requested.

Stenzel-Poore says there could be a silver lining in the cutbacks though, as she is forced to creatively manage lab space. She says both of the immunologists she oversees have had their funding cut about in half, which means they have been able to retain half as many researchers. To save on the $70,000 a year rent each researcher must pay OHSU for lab space, Stenzel-Poore has combined the two teams so that they fit into one lab and share equipment.

Maybe, Stenzel-Poore says, these types of new lab accommodations will further scientific progress. “My idea is you actually do science better when you share thinking and rub elbows with people working on similar problems,” she says.

But it’s the long term that has Stenzel-Poore most concerned. Those young researchers leaving OHSU will at the very least probably move out of Portland, she says, because there are few biotech companies here to offer alternative employment.

OHSU has tried to replace the lost NIH funding with private grants. The Knight family gave $100 million for a new cancer center in 2008 and $125 million for a cardiovascular institute in 2012. But those are one-time gifts, and pale in comparison to the more than $200 million OHSU has received every year from the NIH.

Cuts’ effects ripple

Research!America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for medical research, says that Oregon will lose about $15 million in research grants this year due to sequestration. The nonprofit estimates that continued sequestration will cost Oregon about $30 million in federal research funding per year.

“That’s a lot of jobs,” says Mary Woolley, Research! America’s president.

As a rough estimate on the overall economic impact, Woolley says that $30 million represents at least 300 jobs. And NIH grant money is the type of revenue that economists say is most valuable — money coming into an area from outside. That money’s impact doubles or triples, Woolley says, when support jobs are taken into account. The scientists who get grant money purchase lab supplies and hire technicians, for example.

Woolley says 2014 NIH funding being considered in Congress could take this year’s 5 percent spending cuts up to 10 or 20 percent. There is no way to calculate the number of unrealized scientific breakthroughs represented by the budget cuts. In human terms, though, the cost is easier to see.

Rachel Clemens-Grisham says she’s discarded the romanticized version of science she held for many years. “As long as I came up with good questions it was all going to work out,” she says.