Survey: Funding Cuts Lowered Productivity and Morale of UCSF Trainees

Contributor
Campus

These are difficult times to be an academic biomedical researcher. Budget cuts and misguided policy decisions have lead to a hypercompetitive funding environment.

The Budget Control Act of 2011, which put a hard cap on discretionary spending between 2011 and 2021, and the accompanying five percent across-the-board budget cuts (i.e. the sequester) reduced the National Institute of Health (NIH) budget by $1.55 billion in FY13.

One year later, the impact of these cuts on research institutions and principle investigators is coming to light. As a result of these cuts there are an estimated 1000 fewer NIH funded principal investigators compared to 2012, according to Science (March 7, 2014). On top of this, the success rate for awarded NIH grants is at an all time low of 17 percent overall, and 13 percent for first time PIs, according to the NIH Datebook.

Coupled with an estimated three-fold increase in the number of investigators exiting the NIH system, according to Grantome, this suggests that a long-anticipated contraction in the number of NIH-supported labs is occurring. Not surprisingly, these cuts are affecting trainee funding as well, with K99 and F32 awards at all time lows of 22 percent and 24 percent respectively.  However, the impact these cuts are having on trainee research and career development has not been examined.

To find out how the current budgetary constraints and the sequester are impacting the training environment, productivity and career goals of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at UCSF, the Science Policy Group at UCSF surveyed UCSF trainees. The survey was administered and responses were collected in October 2013.  A total of 229 trainees responded—40 postdoctoral scholars and 89 graduate students, corresponding to approximately 10 percent and 15 percent of the respective populations. A summary of the poll results is described below. Full poll results and analysis are available online at www.facebook.com/UcsfSciencePolicyGroup.

As a result of the five percent NIH budget cuts, postdoc and graduate students at UCSF have experienced negative short- and long-term impacts on their training environment, research productivity and morale. A significant number of trainees, two-thirds of postdocs and one-third of graduate students, reported an overall decrease in productivity.

A major reason cited by trainees (51 percent of postdocs and 17 percent of graduate students) for their dwindling productivity is the increased amount of time spent writing their own fellowship and scholarship applications as well as writing increasing numbers of grants for their PIs.

Further, decreased funding to individual PIs has caused a decrease in the number of laboratory personnel, further impacting the quality of the training environment. Aside from the impact on productivity, a more detrimental impact on morale is being felt.

For today’s young scientists, the fact that these uncertain budgetary issues are likely to continue has sent a message of hostility towards science and is helping to reinforce the idea that, as one UCSF postdoc put it, “scientific excellence is no longer a priority for the country.”

The most startling result of this survey is that more than 70 percent of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are having second thoughts about continuing on with a career in academic science research. On top of this, one-fifth of all respondents expressed an interest in leaving the U.S. to pursue a career overseas where the political climate is perceived to be less hostile towards science. These trainees represent the next generation of U.S. scientists, and their loss will undoubtedly impact the U.S. economy and our role as a global leader in innovation.

What has the Science Policy Group done with this information? After conducting and analyzing the poll results, we shared our findings with the UCSF leadership to educate them about our concerns. We also shared the results with our members of Congress in December 2013. In January 2014, a bipartisan agreement was signed that restored some of the cuts for FY14 and FY15.

However, the amount of money the NIH received was still roughly $715 million short of the amount budgeted for FY13 before the sequestration was imposed. Adjusting for inflation, the money allocated for FY14 was the lowest level since FY01.

Further, the budget cuts caused by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will be reinstated in FY16 if a long-term agreement cannot be reached. To advocate for increased funding, we are sending members of the Science Policy Group to Washington in May to partake in the Coalition of Life Sciences Capital Hill Day where they will petition congress with our concerns.

We are winding down our activities for the 2013-2014 school year but will be starting up again for the 2014 fall semester. We invite the UCSF community to come out and participate. You can learn more about the Science Policy Group at UCSF and our events on Facebook