Scientists brace for leaner times

Labs expect GOP to win cuts as stimulus expires

Terence Flotte, dean of the UMass Medical School, said it aims to hire scientists with a track record of landing grants. Terence Flotte, dean of the UMass Medical School, said it aims to hire scientists with a track record of landing grants.
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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President Obama’s budget proposal includes increased funding for biomedical and basic science research, but scientists and institutions in Massachusetts are bracing for leaner times. House Republicans have proposed aggressive cuts to research funding agencies this year, and economic stimulus grants that have been a lifeline to laboratories are beginning to run out.

The president has requested a $1 billion, 3 percent increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health over its 2010 level, a $900 million, 13 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, and a $450 million, 9 percent increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

House Republicans would like to cut nonsecurity discretionary spending to 2008 levels and have introduced a resolution to make drastic cuts to budgets in the last half of the current fiscal year — including a $1.6 billion cut at the NIH and a $1.1 billion cut at the Office of Science.

What will make the coming tussle over the budgets more painful is that for the past two years, new projects have been kick-started and research jobs created through a surge of stimulus grants, many of which expire this year. At a number of institutions, including Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, such grants now make up about 10 percent of the annual research budget.

Overall, Massachusetts received $990 million in stimulus funding from the National Institutes of Health and $450 million for Department of Energy projects and clean energy tax programs.

“It was great to have this help, but we also realize that it’s kind of a teaser, to get really exciting things going and then sort of — the bottom drops out,’’ said Dr. William W. Chin, executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School. “This is not in a complaining spirit, but it’s the reality. We did plan for this, but the period that follows is going to be quite challenging.’’

Elizabeth Luna, a professor of cell biology at UMass Medical School, said keeping her lab going after a stimulus grant of about $100,000 ran out has become a major challenge. The grant was scientifically successful; she published two papers and discovered an intriguing biological clue that could help explain why certain cancer drugs have cardiovascular side effects. But she said the competition for funding is already increasing.

Luna is cobbling together money to keep her lab operating and is taking a course on how to write more competitive grant applications. On conference calls, she and scientists from other universities commiserate.

“Just like any support group, there’s some comfort in knowing other people are going through the same thing,’’ Luna said. “When things are all shut down like it is now, it’s just really hard. . . . One of the people talked about that — once you’ve been turned down six times, how do you sit in front of your computer again and come up with that enthusiasm to write the next grant?’’

But Kim Lewis, director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University, was more upbeat. His $640,000 stimulus grant will make him more competitive when he applies for traditional funding, he said, and it allowed him to hire a scientist who recently lost his job at a biotech company, as well as support two other people.

Lewis studies “persisters’’ — bacteria that go dormant but remain in the body. The grant allowed his team to gain insight into how those bacterial zombies awaken and cause infections.

Universities and hospitals knew the stimulus money was temporary, and made plans accordingly. Still, subtle shifts are taking place.

Dr. Terence Flotte, dean of the UMass Medical School, said it is looking to hire senior scientists who have a track record of landing grants. At most institutions, there will be a greater emphasis on diversifying funding sources.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stimulus money spurred growth in energy, technology, and health research, but the budget will be scaled back, a spokeswoman said. At Massachusetts General Hospital, “bridge’’ funds that support researchers until they can win federal grants will undoubtedly become more important, said Dr. Richard Bringhurst, senior vice president.

“In past years when we’ve encountered cycles of this sort, it’s typically a two-, three-, four-year cycle,’’ Bringhurst said. “Given the economy and the current budget environment in Washington, I’m concerned that this may be a longer duration than we faced in the past.’’

Mohammad Movassaghi, associate professor at MIT, said a stimulus grant allowed his lab to continue research that otherwise would have been shelved. But he questioned whether researchers will have to curb their ambitions. “The important and significant discoveries come from many years of sustained research, not simply a scheduled burst of higher-volume experiment,’’ he said.

“You can’t just schedule discoveries.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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