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A Troubling Divorce

March 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

The unhappy marriage between the United States government and science (research, education, outreach) ended this month. We’ve known for years now that the relationship was doomed to fail, with shouting matches in Washington and fingers pointed in all directions. I would more likely describe an end to the relationship between elected officials and human reason, but that would be harsh, and I still have hope for that one. Sadly, this generation of congresspeople signed the paperwork for a divorce with science.

America’s love affair with science dates back to its origins. Later, Samuel Slater’s factory system fueled the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Edison combatted with Nikola Tesla in the War of the Currents. It was a happy marriage, yielding many offspring. The Hygienic Laboratory of 1887 grew into the National Institutes of Health approximately 50 years later. We, the people, invented, explored, and looked to the stars. Combined with a heavy dose of Sputnik-envy, Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958. We, the people, then used our inventions to explore the stars.

Since then, generations of both adults and children have benefited from the biomedical studies at the NIH, the basic science and education at the NSF, and the inspiration and outreach from NASA. Since Goddard’s first flight through Curiosity’s landing on Mars, citizens of the United States have not only directly benefited from spin-offsbut also through NASA’s dedication to increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field participation. Informed readers will know that although the STEM crisis may be exaggerated, these fields create jobs, assuming benefits from manufacturing and related careers. Such job multipliers should be seen as beacons of hope in troubling times.

Focusing on the NIH, it should be obvious to readers that biomedical science begets health benefits. From Crawford Long’s (unpublished and thus uncredited) first use of ether in the 18th century through great projects like the Human Genome Project, Americans have succeeded in this realm. However, as many know, holding a career in academia is challenging. Two issues compound the problem. First, principal investigators must “publish or perish.” Similar to a consulting firm where you must be promoted or be fired (“up or out”), researchers must continue to publish their results on a regular basis, preferably in high-impact journals, or risk lack of tenure. The second problem lies in funding. Scientists must apply for grants and, in the case of biomedical researchers, these typically come from the NIH. With funding cuts occurring throughout the previous years, research grants (R01) have been reduced both in compensation per award and number awarded. Additionally, training grants (F’s) and early career awards (K’s) have been reduced. Money begets money, and reduction in these training and early career grants make it even more difficult to compete with veterans when applying for research grants. Thus, entry into the career pathway becomes ever the more difficult, approaching an era where academia may be an “alternative career” for PhD graduates.

The United States loved science. The government bragged about it. We shared our results with the world. Earthriseone of my favorite images from NASA, showed a world without borders. The astronauts of Apollo 8 returned to a new world after their mission in 1968. This image, the one of the Earth without borders, influenced how we think about this planet. The environmental movement began. As Robert Poole put it, “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.” It is no coincidence that the Environmental Protection Agency was established two years later. A movement that began with human curiosity raged onward.

Recently, however, the marriage between our government and its science and education programs began to sour. Funding was cut across the board through multiple bills. Under our current administration, NASA’s budget was reduced to less than 0.5% of the federal budget, before the cuts I am about to describe. The NIH has been challenged too, providing fewer and fewer grants to researchers, forcing many away from the bench and into new careers. Funding for science education and outreach subsequently fell, too. Luckily, other foundations, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, picked up part of the bill.

I ran into this problem when applying for a grant through the National Institutes of Health and discussing the process with my colleagues. I should note as a disclaimer that I was lucky enough to have received an award, but that luck is independent of the reality we as scientists must face. The process is simple. Each NIH grant application is scored, and a committee determines which grants are funded based upon that score and funds available. With less money coming in, fewer grants are awarded. Thus, with cuts over the past decade, grant success rates plummeted from ~30% to 18% in 2011. When Congress decided to cut its ties with reality in March and allow for the sequester, it was estimated that this number will drop even further. (It should be noted that a drop in success rate could also be due to an increase in the number of applications, and a large part of that decrease in success rate over 10 years was due to the 8% rise in applications received.) This lack of funding creates barriers. Our government preaches that STEM fields are the future of this country, yet everything they have done in recent history has countered this notion. As an applicant for a training grant, I found myself in a position where very few grants may be awarded, and some colleagues went unfunded due to recent funding cuts. This was troubling for all of us, and I am appalled at the contradiction between rhetoric in Washington and their annual budget.

Back to NASA. As we know, President Obama was never a fan of the organization when writing his budget, yet he spoke highly of the agency when NASA succeeded. Cuts proposed by both the White House and Congress to NASA in 2011 for a reduction of $1.2 trillion over 10 years have already been in place. This was enough to shut down many programs, reduced the number employed, and led to the ruin of many of its buildings. However, the sequester, an across-the-board cut, also hit NASA very hard. As of yesterday, all science education and outreach programs were suspended. This was the moment that Congress divorced Science.

All agencies are hit hard by these issues, and it isn’t just fields in science, education, and outreach. Yet, speaking firsthand, I can say that these cuts are directly affecting those of us on the front line, trying to enter the field and attempting to pursue STEM-related careers. Barriers are rising as the result of a dilapidated system. Having had numerous encounters with failed F, K, and R awards amongst friends and colleagues simply due to budget constraints (meaning that their score would have been awarded in a previous year, but the payline was lowered to fund fewer applications) and seeing children around New York who are captivated by science education but are within a system without the funds to fuel them, I can comfortably claim that we are all the forgotten children of a failed marriage.

Whether it be due to issues raised in this post or your own related to the sequester, remember that this is a bipartisan issue. There are no winners in this game, except for those congresspeople whose paychecks went unaffected after the sequester. I urge you to contact your elected official. Perhaps, we can rekindle this relationship.