Scientists feeling sequester pinch


The federal budget sequester is starting to squeeze biomedical research, Seattle scientists told Sen. Patty Murray on Tuesday.

Some federal grants, which are the lifeblood of institutions like the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, have been cut by as much as half, said researchers who participated in a round-table discussion. At the UW School of Medicine, the bite adds up to $24 million so far, said Dr. John Slattery, vice dean for research and graduate education.

The Hutch is facing layoffs, though the number remains uncertain, added Senior Vice President Dr. Fred Appelbaum.

Already high, the bar for new funding has been raised even more. The branch of the National Institutes of Health that sponsors most diabetes research used to fund the top 20 percent of grant applications, said John Wecker, president and CEO of the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute. Now, because of budget uncertainty, fewer than one in 10 applications make the cut.

A junior scientist at his institute recently had two proposals rejected, despite glowing reviews of their merit, Wecker said.

“We are facing the possibility of scaling back or even closing out a promising lab at a time when the country needs more research, not less,” he told Murray.

As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, the Washington Democrat has drawn up an alternative budget that does away with the sequester — a package of deep cuts meant to encourage bickering lawmakers to reach a compromise on the federal deficit. When the deal fell through, the cuts automatically began to take effect.

Murray’s budget would raise taxes on high-income Americans and businesses. But Republicans favor the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which preserves the sequester cuts and reduces spending on Medicare and Medicaid.

The impacts of the sequester didn’t hit immediately, but are now beginning to have real effects on peoples’ lives, Murray said. In Snohomish County, the Meals on Wheels program is reducing its menu by 2,000 meals, she said. Head Start programs in Washington are also being forced to cut back.

Alarmed by government plans to furlough air traffic controllers and meat inspectors, Congress carved out exemptions to allow some agencies to cover shortfalls by shuffling money around. But Murray said that doesn’t address the basic issue.

“We’ll fund research by taking money from what?” she asked. “Our kids in school?”

At the UW, research projects that have been scaled back include the search for genes that predict which women will get breast cancer, development of tests to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in its early stages and studies of gene therapy for heart disease, Slattery said.

Dr. James Olson, a pediatric oncologist at the Hutch and Seattle Children’s, has spun off two companies from his research and is pioneering a method to determine which drugs will be most effective against individual tumors.

But his federal grant was cut by more than half. As a result, one of his senior staffers left to take an industry job and several student positions are in jeopardy.

The effects are most severe for fledgling researchers, who may be forced out of the field completely, said Appelbaum.

“It’s having a chilling effect on young scientists who are looking for careers.”

One of them is Dr. Aude Chapius, who led Murray on a tour around the Hutch lab where she studies ways to harness a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Chapius’ application for a federal career-development grant is in limbo, she said. If it falls through, she’ll either look for a job in industry or move abroad.