Environment & Science

Sequestration cuts hurt California scientists more than most

Dr. Giselle Passos is PhD Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Irvine. The neuroscience lab she works with is facing budget cuts due to sequestration.
Dr. Giselle Passos is PhD Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Irvine. The neuroscience lab she works with is facing budget cuts due to sequestration.
KPCC/Sanden Totten

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By one estimate, California scientists could lose $180 million in funding as automatic federal sequestration cuts start trickling down to local programs - more than anywhere else in the country.

That doesn’t bode well for advancements in stem cell research, space exploration or green technology, where California scientists are at the forefront of new discoveries. Some researchers said talented scientists may leave California.

Among the victims is Alzheimer’s research. The disease currently affects 5 million Americans – and that number is expected to triple as baby boomers age.

UC Irvine researcher David Cribbs studies the disease through experiments with mice that have been genetically modified to develop dementia. These creatures require costly sterile cages and Cribbs needs a lot of them.

"When I was fully up and running and funded, my mouse bill was around $10,000 a month," Cribbs said.

He also needs a team of graduate students and technicians to work with those mice. So when sequestration cuts hit his lab in March, he faced a tough choice.

"Either people are going to have to be furloughed or animals are going to have to be sacrificed and those experiments put on hold,” he said. "Ultimately it may be end up being both."

Cribbs said that could set his work back by years. And if his lab isn't churning out new research, it becomes harder to get new grants to replace those lost dollars.

"You see how this could snowball," Cribbs said. "You've got to let your people go, sack your mice. And you sit in your office and keep writing grants that don't get funded. Then you don't have a job. Then you've got to find something else to do."

A similar scenario is playing out in labs across California.

The National Institutes of Health, which funds a lot of local research, lost 1.7 billion dollars due to sequestration – and it’s passing them on. The National Science Foundation also took the 5% across-the-board hit.

The organizations have even sliced grants they had already promised to give out.

Children's Hospital in Los Angeles lost $1 million from it's NIH grant as part of sequestration this fiscal year.

"That means figuring out how to keep the discoveries in children's cancer research moving forward and still close that million dollar gap in funding," said Brent Polk, the hospital’s Physician in Chief.

One way the hospital is doing that is by partnering with private pharmaceutical companies to develop new treatments. But Polk said designing studies that appeal to a for profit industry while avoiding any perceived conflicts of interest can be challenging.

These partnerships have become more common over the last three years as NIH funding dipped, he said. Sequestration will only push more research in that direction.

The problem is that important basic research -- such as whether there's a link between air pollution and diabetes or how cancer metastasizes -- doesn't appeal to most pharmaceuticals or other for-profit medical companies.

Still, not everyone thinks sequestration cuts are the beginning of the end.

Stephen Levy, Senior Economist and director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, said it's only a matter of time before some science research funding is restored.

"I don't think any of this stuff is permanent," Levy said. "The deficit outlook looks a whole lot better than it did two months ago and I don't think the story beyond this year has been written."

Even if this is a temporary dip, it can have lasting effects. Some scientists are leaving the field to become doctors or teachers. Others are moving to countries like China or India where governments are boosting research money.

PHD candidate Meredith Chabrier is worried that the reduction in research dollars may push her out of the field she loves: brain science.

Some of her professors UC Irvine have told her that after she finishes nearly a decade of education and training, there may not be enough work for her when she graduates.

“That's really hard to grasp," Chabrier said.