Science Funding in a Tanking Economy

The recession is hitting more than banks and homes these days. State budget cuts and no increases from the federal government are straining research labs and scientists. Adam Allington reports the effects might not be as obvious or immediate as the house foreclosures and the credit crisis, the effect on science jobs and innovation might be just as bad.

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The recession is hitting more than banks and homes these days. State budget cuts and no increases from the federal government are straining research labs and scientists. Adam Allington reports the effects might not be as obvious or immediate as the house foreclosures and the credit crisis, the effect on science jobs and innovation might be just as bad:

At first glance there's not much in Dale Dorsett's lab beyond the usual - you know, grad students in white lab coats, centrifuges, test tubes.

Even though his lab is relatively small, his costs are not.

He takes me toward a locked room in the back of the lab containing a single microscope.

"It's a laser scanning confocal microscope, which is essential for part of our work. That cost - $350,000 - now you know why we keep it locked."

Dale is a molecular biologist at St. Louis University. He studies a genetic disorder that affects about one in ten-thousand humans.

Well, that is, when he can.

These days Dorsett says he spends more of his time filling out grant applications than he does on his research.

And he's not the only one in this pickle. Winning grants for research is getting tough.

"The problem becomes when it gets so competitive that even really deserving projects, or very productive scientists who are doing really good work can't get funded and that's the situation we're in right now."

Funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation has been slipping for years. It's a big problem.

It used to be about 30% of grant applications were successful. Now, that success rate has slipped into the teens.

And even those researchers who do get funded say grant preference is often given to projects that produce immediate results - which just isn't the way most science works.

"I'm conservative because otherwise the lab would go under."

Kristen Kroll runs a lab studying stem cells at Washington University.

"I would love to be more aggressive about what we go after, which connections we try to make to other models. I think I've curbed what we could be doing to a point where what we are doing is sustainable in the current funding climate."

Kroll says there is such a back log of quality grant applications on file at the NIH and NSF, grant reviewers aren't even separating wheat from chaff any more they're separating wheat from wheat. So a lot of good research just doesn't happen.

And in a world economy the U.S. isn't the only player in the market for innovation. Other countries could gain an advantage in science.

James McCarter is the Chief Scientist for Divergence, a St. Louis-based biotech company.

"The emergence of India and China, in addition to Japan and Korea and Europe. There are sizeable countries out there now that are serious in these spaces and are making serious investments and have the talent."

Now,you might be thinking, won't that big stimulus package send wave of cash into the coffers of government research agencies - problem solved right?

Not so much. While a billion dollar shot in arm might be welcome news for some labs, many advisors worry that the long-term effect might actually exacerbate the funding crisis.

John Russell is the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at Washington University. He says, a big pile of cash all at once does nothing for ongoing research that can take years to complete.

"One of the concerns about a big bubble is that if it's just a bubble is that it takes five years to train somebody so it needs to be more spread out I think to be effective."

Russell warns universities considering a building and spending spree to plan carefully, so current projects don't reach beyond future budget realities.

For The Environment Report, I'm Adam Allington.

© 2008 Environment Report