03/15/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

How the Sequester Is Killing Passion Where We Need It Most

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been the main support for research focused on understanding the pathogenic mechanisms of human diseases and consequently finding cures. The United States has been a pioneer in fostering this venture for decades and therefore leading the rest of the world in diagnoses and treatments for diseases that have eluded therapy. NIH funding is the main support system for several scientists, of whom I am one, who have dedicated their entire careers to realizing their common goal. The environment for basic research in collaboration with clinical science in the US has been excellent and has resulted in landmark discoveries that have alleviated human pain and suffering due to disease. However, the recent economic downturn and the resulting cuts to funding, have severely impacted scientists like me: careers put on hold, ongoing projects have to be delayed or discontinued, personnel have to be laid off, new innovative ideas have to be shelved. Additionally, the "sequestration" has been imposed because the elected officials failed to come to an agreement on specific cuts to decrease spending. Therefore an across-the-board formula has been adopted and the NIH is subject to 8.2% cut to discretionary spending and 7.6% cut to mandatory spending.

Since the NIH was operating under a Continuing Resolution, a stopgap funding measure, by which, all continuing awards were funded only at 90% of the previously committed level. Over that, sequestration resulted in a further 10% reduction. This steep cut of 20% in funding has catastrophic consequences: in the words of Dr. Francis Collins, Director, NIH "most talented young scientists will basically desire to do something else, or perhaps do it somewhere else"; plans for new contract(s) may be re-scoped, delayed, or canceled depending on the nature of the work and the availability of resources (Diane J. Frasier, Head of the Contracting Activity, NIH); it will devastate US science research for decades by freezing American ideas while the rest of the world moves forward and gaps in the innovation pipeline would cost billions of dollars and hurt the national economy for decades.

I am a principal investigator (PI) who directs research on genetics of mitochondrial diseases funded by the NIH. The freedom to experiment with hypotheses and the success that is conditional only on hard work, encouraged scientists like me to test the research environment. I have built my career over the past thirty years driven by a passion for science. Life here for a woman professional with a family was far from easy. Nevertheless, the passion impelled me on, results and publications kept me in focus. I used to emphasize the importance of four P's to my colleagues, "if you have a passion for science, you can live on pennies, peanuts and papers". Not practical, but you make sacrifices and make it work. In the 90s and even into the mid half of 20s were good for obtaining funding. Then the hard times hit. The strike is harder on the most vulnerable: untenured, independent investigators with no title or institutional support who are 100% dependent on grants for their research. You lose personnel, laboratory space that is paid for from the indirect costs that accompany your grant, and above all you are forced to abandon the projects that you conceived of, developed and worked on with a passion. Now the most vulnerable have to decide either to retire prematurely, or to change track. Either way the impetus for a life time of passion is lost.

Dr. Mercy Mascreen Davidson has spent her entire career studying the genetics of mitochondrial disease at the Columbia University Medical Center. Her research is mainly funded by the National Institutes of Health.