Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

Sequestration Forces Scientist To Euthanize His Genetically Modified Rabbits

Posted: Updated:

WASHINGTON -- When The Huffington Post published an in-depth look at how budget cuts were affecting scientific research, we encouraged readers to offer reactions and share personal experiences.

Responses varied. There were some in the political world, primarily conservatives, who believed the issue was overblown. Funding for the National Institutes of Health, they noted, remained robust at $29 billion. And while the agency's budget has decreased because of sequestration, it is still dramatically higher than it was under Bill Clinton, even when adjusted for inflation.

Reactions from academics and advocates were decidedly different. If anything, they thought the piece undersold the problem. Michael Lubell, Director of Public Affairs at the America Physical Society, one of the world's largest organizations of physicists, noted that the NIH budget "stagnated and in purchasing power declined significantly" in the past few years. And it isn't just the NIH feeling the pinch, he added. The Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and other government agencies are all slashing support for grants.

The most illustrative feedback, however, came from scientists, researchers and students from throughout the country who offered their own personal experiences with funding cuts, ranging from being forced to move their families to other countries to find work, to euthanizing the bunnies on which they'd been conducting experiments.

It's worth acknowledging that those who depend on government grants are apt to protest when those funds get cut. Still, the stories illustrate just how widespread and disruptive sequestration and budget reductions have been to the field of science. A select few have been pasted below, slightly edited for formatting purposes.

Robert E. Marc, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Utah School of Medicine

Like many other investigators, we've been seriously wounded by sequestration. Many neighboring labs have let people go.

I have riffed one postdoctoral fellow and euthanized many beautiful, rare and expensive transgenic rabbits that were new, exciting models for testing new therapies for human retinal degenerations. We petted them, played with them, fed them treats. Now they are dead. I blame Congress directly for that.

I am fortunate in having a lot of funding, but we can't bank grant money against a rainy day. It is not legal. And the only way I can protect my people is by destroying expensive resources (mice, rabbits), not buying service contracts on expensive equipment (like not buying fire insurance), and not buying critical reagents and lab resources. That hurts us and every business we buy from. Every sequester dollar is subtracted from the economy.

The sequester saves the taxpayer no money at all and is destroying past investments.

NIH funding is a huge part of the economies of many states, especially Utah. So the sequester cuts grocery money, house payments etc. In a smoke and mirrors move, the federal deficit is just distributed into small local economies who can do nothing about it. The sequester is like balancing your family budget by stealing from neighbors.

Moreover the sequester's cost is tremendously understated as no one is counting the destroyed investments. I've spent over $25,000 developing a colony of animals who have a progressive age dependent blindness. Because of the sequester we've killed them before we could finish the treatment study. We saved about $4000 from this year's budget. We thus wasted 5x more money than the sequester saved. When and if Congress ever does anything again, it will be years before we get our new blindness treatment study back on line. If it doesn't get better soon, I'll retire early and then 15 people will be unemployed.

Dorothy M. Supp, Ph.D., Associate Investigator at the Shriners Hospitals for Children at Cincinnati Burns Hospital

I am an investigator studying tissue engineering and wound healing. My lab has contributed to development of skin substitutes for burn patients, and is currently developing treatments for patients with abnormal scarring.

My research has been greatly impacted by NIH budget cuts. I have been funded in the past by a private non-profit, but their funds are drying up and I have been trying for several years to get NIH funding. New rules at NIH only permit you to submit a grant application two times: one original submission, and if not funded, one revised submission, in which you respond to the reviewers' critique. My last application was scored 19th percentile... I was told the cut-off was 15% this year due to sequestration and the continuing resolution. This was a revised application so this project can no longer be submitted to NIH for funding...it's dead in the water. I have submitted over a dozen grant applications in the last two years alone, with no success.

I got my PhD in 1994 and should be at the peak of my career. Instead I am constantly writing grant after grant, trying to keep myself and my two research assistants employed. Discouraging doesn't begin to describe the current climate. I have two gifted children who both excel at math and science, but I would never encourage them to pursue a career in scientific research. After all the late nights and weekends they see me working (mostly writing grants), they really have no interest!

Jeremy B. Tuttle, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia School of Medicine

I began serious research while in high school. My first citable work was a report of summer research at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1964. Since then, my work has been supported continuously by NIH, NSF, various foundations and other sources, but primarily NIH. I have decided to shut my lab down by the end of this year and resign. The major reason for this is that I do not want to continue to write unsuccessful grant proposals.

Imagine the experience, perhaps wisdom, certainly broad perspective and problem solving skills that 50 years of successful research has given me. Imagine this valuable resource being lost: no more brilliant young minds influenced by it, no new discoveries and understanding generated. Multiply this lost cumulative knowledge by scores of others. Now, attempt to discern how long it will take to regenerate this resource. That is the result of sequestration combined with stagnant support for some time - a hole in the time line of scientific progress.

Daniel Rathbun, neuroscientist in Germany

I am a 34-year old neuroscientist working in Germany for the last four years on a visual prosthesis chip that has been proven to restore some sight to patients blinded by retinitis pigmentosa. Our implant was just certified as a medical device in the EU. At this moment, real cyborgs walk among us!

My expertise is in 'speaking the language that the eye uses to communicate with the brain' -- I study neural coding. My role in this project is to work with mouse retinas to develop the next generation of prostheses that will bring us from the current black and white, dot-matrix printer-like vision that patients currently have to something much closer to the vision promised us in the visor Geordi wore in Star Trek.

Later this month, I may be awarded a €1.2 million grant to work for another five years here in Germany. However, I -- and especially my wife -- yearn to return home during that time, even if the grant is approved. I am terrified that when I begin applying for tenure-track positions back in the U.S. there just won't be any. I can't settle for less than a tenure-track position because -- put simply -- academic science just doesn't pay well enough without the promise of steady employment. I've been avidly tuning in to the public discussion of America's commitment to continue supporting our research infrastructure; and right now, I feel abandoned by my country. My family can continue to survive here in Germany; but it seems tragic to me that we might have to despite our strong desire to come home.

Giuseppina Nucifora, Professor of Hematology/Oncology in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine

The NIH is the most important source of funding for research related to human diseases and until 3-4 years ago, it supported about 25% of all medical studies, both in basic sciences and as translational applications. Today that number has fallen to 5%-10%. The immediate impact of such reduction is the loss of outstanding investigators, clinician-scientists, and gifted technicians. The long-term result is the unavoidable loss of the dominant and leading role that the US held in global scientific discovery and translational/clinical applications to patients’ care. We are no longer looked at as the country to go to for scientific research and innovation.

My lab has unfortunately lost the 20-years continuous NIH support for research on a disease that affects the blood cells of mostly older patients. As the population lives longer because of overall better medical care, this disease, Myelodysplastic Syndromes, plays an increasingly larger role in determining quality and length of life. This disease is very complex and obscure. The patients’ bone marrow cells simply cease to generate circulating, functional blood cells and the disease often progresses to incurable leukemia.

Our work was generously supported by multiple grants from two NIH Institutes at the same time, the NCI and the NHLBI. This work led to the identification of the role of small genes, microRNA, in the activation and repression of factors that alter the normal behavior of blood cells precursors. We have now reached the most important and challenging point of our research, and that is to utilize these small genes and manipulate their expression to reverse the abnormalities of the precursor cells and normalize their production. Unfortunately the grant we submitted was scored at a level that a few years ago would have been funded, but was not good enough now.

The American Society of Hematology has now taken a leading role in providing some measure of life to medical research by providing bridge grants to researchers in my situation. For our lab, it means we can continue our work.

Michael Garvin, PhD at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries

After several years working in the biotech field I entered graduate school at 35 to bring technology I helped develop for human research to aid in the management and conservation of species in Alaska and other polar regions. I've just completed my degree and walked out into the worst job market in decades. I have one more year on a post doc I helped write myself and then I'm out of money and out of health insurance-at 44.

The usual path for someone like myself would be to do an NRC post doc at NOAA or USGS. These have all been canceled due to sequestration. There will be no scientists trained to move into key positions as the current group retires.

Any academic jobs that are available require teaching experience so new graduates are automatically disqualified. Schools are asking their faculty to teach more because they are unable to hire enough people.

I've applied for an NSF grant but the administrator was not even sure they would get funding. It took me three months to write a grant that may have zero chance of getting funded anyway. One post-doc fellowship I applied for had 900 applicants. It's abysmal. I'm now applying for positions outside the United States.

HuffPost Readers: We're working on a project to document the nationwide impact of sequestration, and we want to know what the budget cuts have meant for you. If you or someone you know has been affected by reductions to research or other programs, or has been laid off or furloughed, we'd like to hear your story.

Call us at (860) 348-3376 and you can leave a message to record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number. You can also send us a note at openreporting@huffingtonpost.com. We will never use your name or any identifying details without your permission.

Also on HuffPost:

Close
U.S. State Capitol Buildings
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide

Suggest a correction

Around the Web

New York Times Goes Nationwide in Quest for Sequestration Horror ...

Sequestration horror stories and unfair finger pointing - Examiner.com

The Sequester That Wasn't Meant To Happen Begins : It's All Politics ...

How sequestration handicaps our future through science cuts

Sequestration Could Curtail 'Hurricane Hunter' Missions