How is the sequester affecting science in America?

The Federal Government's budget sequester has left the nation's science and technology funding at its lowest in years. As predicted, labs are ditching projects and scientists; researchers are looking overseas for jobs and funding; health initiatives are being hamstrung; and federal agencies across the board are floundering. Here's what you need to know about the state of science in America.

Get yourself up to speed: The Huffington Post's Sam Stein has been covering the sequester's impact on science in America for months now. His in-depth feature is a great place to start. When you're through, check out this from-the-field followup post that goes through some of the feedback Stein received from scientists on how the sequestration is killing their projects left and right – literally and figuratively. Robert E. Marc, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, writes:

Like many other investigators, we've been seriously wounded by sequestration. Many neighboring labs have let people go.

I have riffed one postdoctoral fellow and euthanized many beautiful, rare and expensive transgenic rabbits that were new, exciting models for testing new therapies for human retinal degenerations. We petted them, played with them, fed them treats. Now they are dead. I blame Congress directly for that.

...the sequester's cost is tremendously understated as no one is counting the destroyed investments. I've spent over $25,000 developing a colony of animals who have a progressive age dependent blindness. Because of the sequester we've killed them before we could finish the treatment study. We saved about $4000 from this year's budget. We thus wasted 5x more money than the sequester saved. When and if Congress ever does anything again, it will be years before we get our new blindness treatment study back on line. If it doesn't get better soon, I'll retire early and then 15 people will be unemployed.

Researchers across the country are being placed under similar pressure to cut people and projects. A funding report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology shows NIH funding is 22 percent ($4.7-billion) less than it was in 2003, and at its lowest inflation-adjusted appropriations level since the turn of the millenium. A study released earlier this year by the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) revealed nearly half of researchers receiving federal science funding have recently laid off, or will lay off, members of their lab. Via CNN Money:

Some 1,444 of 3,165 scientists reported layoffs are imminent or have taken place at their laboratories, because they couldn't renew federal grants.

About 54% of scientists reported that they know a colleague who has lost a job, according to the survey. The questionnaires went out in June and July.

When the money-well goes dry, scientists look to other countries for financial support. The ASBMB study shows close to 1 in 5 U.S. scientists has considered moving their research overseas in search of better funding. In its coverage of the ASBMB's results, The Royal Society of Chemistry notes that "the report has... been touted by science advocacy groups as further proof that the U.S. is losing its preeminence in science and innovation":

Meanwhile, lobby groups like Research!America share concerns about a scientific brain drain from the US. ‘China is aggressively wooing Chinese nationals who have trained in the US by offering very generous funding,’ says Mary Woolley, the organisation’s president and CEO. ‘Other nations that are attractive to US scientists now include those whose governments have committed to science, even in a time of general economic austerity: the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sweden and Australia.’

Outsourcing scientific innovation is projected to have unwanted repercussions in the technology sector. At U.S. News & World Report, Neal Lane investigates how slashing basic science research could have downstream consequences on new technologies, the development of which inevitably hinges on discoveries made in the lab:

Of course, Apple and its competitors created this new industry. But the technologies that make smart phones and tablets possible came from discoveries made through federally funded research. According to one analysis by Research Trends, the technologies used in LCD screens, lithium-ion batteries, digital hard drive storage and Internet protocols – all critical to these success of these devices – were enabled by key research discoveries funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Departments of Energy and Defense.

None of this research was carried out with a smartphone or tablet in mind. It is simply not possible to say in advance where fundamental research will lead – but without the research, revolutions like this one won't happen.

Meanwhile, federal agencies from NOAA to the Department of Defense are struggling to keep research and development projects on their feet:

How is the sequester affecting science in America?

Chart via C&EN.

“I have never seen it as difficult as it is today to obtain the funding and resources needed to perform our research,” says Benjamin R. Miller, a research scientist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory, in an interview with C&EN:

For instance at NOAA, Miller says that the budget cuts have forced the agency to close several long-term sampling sites used to monitor greenhouse gases and other chemicals in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change and ozone depletion. That is creating gaps in the data, which the agency uses to create models, Miller notes. “It’s like introducing a blind spot where you had vision at one time.”

Jared Bales, chief scientist for water at the U.S .Geological Survey says the agency has had to shut down stream gauges used by the National Weather Service to forecast floods. The DoD this year was able to apply recent breakthroughs to just 10 applied science projects, when in the past they've regularly been able to manage 20. "“We are faced with the double whammy of a budget reduction against an increasingly capable set of potential adversaries,” said Al Shaffer, Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering at the Department of Defense, in an interview with C&EN. “We won’t know the full impact for several years.”

In an interview with The Lancet, CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner says “all our programmes will be impacted”, from local health initiatives to low-cost immunizations:

The CDC would provide around 424 000 fewer HIV tests and 7400 fewer patients would have access to HIV drugs, according to estimates HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius provided to the US Senate Committee on Appropriation in February. If the agency can't afford to keep up with the growth in demand, Sebelius has said patients could wind up on waiting lists for HIV drugs.

Things at NASA look bleak, too. Via Universe Today:

“Sequestration would significantly set back the ambitious space exploration plan the President and Congress have asked NASA to carry out,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a message to NASA employees this week. “These damaging cuts would slash roughly 5 percent from the agency’s current annual budget during the remaining seven months of the 2013 fiscal year, a loss of about $726 million from the President’s budget request. This could further delay the restarting of human space launches from U.S. soil, push back our next generation space vehicles, and hold up development of new space technologies.

NASA's outreach has also suffered. Via NBC News:

NASA is putting the brakes on its educational and public outreach efforts, due to the continuing standoff over the federal budget and the resulting sequestration of the agency's funds.

The cutbacks in NASA's activities, including social-media initiatives, were outlined on Friday in a pair of memos from NASA Headquarters in Washington. The independent SpaceRef website published both memos, including one that ordered a suspension and another that provided additional instructions for NASA's Communication Coordinating Council.

Writing for Scientific American, U.S. Fish and Wildlife director Daniel M. Ashe laments how "funding cuts have hamstrung the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ability to fight wildlife trafficking":

The federal budget sequestration is limiting our law-enforcement capability at the very time we need it most. Our Office of Law Enforcement already has 63 vacant positions for special agents—the men and women on the front lines of preventing wildlife crime. With sequestration, FWS had to cancel plans to hire a class of 24 officers to begin filling these jobs. As a result, we will be able to carry out fewer investigations of wildlife trafficking, and we may have to postpone plans to station agents overseas in countries that are either suppliers of or markets for elephant ivory, rhino horn and other contraband.

What more does the future hold? It's difficult to say at this point. As Shaffer of the DoD told C&EN, it will "not be immediate doom and gloom, [but rather] a death of a thousand cuts.” His assessment resonates with that of Michael Lubell, head of public affairs with the American Physical Society. When we spoke with Lubell about the future of American science in a cash-strapped economy, he told us it would be difficult to predict, but that "it's going to be pretty bad":

If you want a high-tech work force, if you want science that drives the economy, this is what you need to do. If you don't, the country will suffer. We will not be innovative. We will not be building a better America. And that is what we're looking at.