Research cutbacks hit hard in Athens

When federal funding for research was cut in March, research universities in every state felt the pain. In Georgia laboratories and clinics, budgets shrank by more than $56 million ( for the current fiscal year.

Young researchers with fledgling research enterprises are especially vulnerable to precipitous drops in support. Cancer geneticist Dr. Melissa Davis runs one such lab, and she worries that across-the-board federal funding cuts will undermine her mission as a researcher and a teacher at the Georgia Regents University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership and on UGA’s main campus.


The sequestration affects not just individual scientists, such as Davis, but also the training of future doctors and future biomedical researchers. Unless the across-the-board cuts are renegotiated, which Congress shows some sign of doing, even veteran faculty may lose heart as experiments grind to a halt and lab workers – many of them students – are laid off.

“There may be fewer grant proposals submitted by UGA faculty, and that’s very worrisome because if you don’t play, you can’t win,” said David C. Lee, UGA’s Vice President for Research. “So, we’re worried that all of this talk of sequestration and all of the things that we’ve been through are taking a toll on faculty morale. Perhaps they’re getting weary in terms of putting proposals in.”

For Davis, the darkest days were in October, when the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies were shut down for more than two weeks. Davis’s lab investigates the molecular mechanisms that connect environmental factors to the development of cancer, especially breast tumors.

This type of investigation requires costly materials and many hands, which right now Davis covers with start-up funding that comes from the state budget. UGA recruited her from the University of Chicago back in 2010, when the new medical campus was just getting off the ground, and she has a dual appointment at the med school and in UGA’s genetics department.

The NIH, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society are the usual funders for cancer research, and she has several grants pending.

The grant application process has always been grueling and competitive, but budget sequestration and October shutdown made it even more discouraging..

She and her colleagues put grant applications aside for awhile,“because there was no one there to receive the application,” said Davis.

Proposals are usually submitted in cycles, but the shutdown interrupted one cycle and submissions began piling up in Bethesda. Meanwhile, non-governmental funders – such as the American Cancer Society – were deluged with proposals.

Many of these are from big dogs in the field.

“It’s already difficult to get funding when you’re the new guy in the room,” said Davis. “But now you have these really senior investigators, who usually depend heavily on NIH funding, coming to the private foundations to keep their labs running. And it makes it even harder for young investigators to get funding in that climate.”

Davis is frustrated that politics endangers not only  her research and the students she teaches, but also the scientific status of the United States.

“I think it’s unfortunate that our government can’t seem to work together to provide solutions that won’t negatively impact the people that they are supposed to be representing,” said Davis.  “I shudder to think that they don’t care; I’d rather think that they don’t know.”

Most medical students spend the summer between their first and second years working in a research setting, and some spend considerably more time in labs like the one Davis leads. Cutbacks in research support means fewer opportunities for tomorrow’s doctors, according to Dr. Barbara Schuster, campus dean for the medical.

Applying scientific theory to research questions is an integral part of medical education, Schuster said.  “Learning the sense of inquiry that they will then apply later on to their medical practice is important.”

Dr. David Lee also worries about the standing of the university in an increasingly cutthroat funding atmosphere.

“A long, drawn-out sequestration poses a danger not only to graduate student education, but also to younger students at the university,” said Lee, the university’s top research administrator.

“That would be a shame, because we think one of things that distinguishes undergrad education at a research one university like UGA is that opportunity to roll up your sleeves and literally work on a state-of-the-art research problem with faculty and fellows and graduate students and so on,” said Lee.

The pain of the budget cuts will not be fully felt for another year or so, because many labs are still covered by multi-year grants Still, it is safe to say that the consequences will be harsh.

Expert research teams, developed with years of consistent funding, could fall apart as scientists go their separate ways in search of funding.

But what troubles researchers and administrators the most is the impact that current events will have on the long-term future, Lee said.

“It’s very hard to encourage or sustain a pipeline of future scientists when you have these vicissitudes in funding.”




Jodi Murphy

Jodi Murphy is a graduate student at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. As an undergraduate student at UGA, she earned a B.A. in English and minors in Spanish and environmental law. She is a contributing writer and former intern at Flagpole magazine in Athens and a former intern at the Mother Nature Network in Atlanta. She spent the past summer as an editorial assistant at Kinfolk Magazine in Portland, OR. She is also a founder and the Editor in Chief of The Seed and Plate, a publication about farming, food and community in the Southeast.

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