Science Watch

Psychologist Stephanie Collins Reed, PhD, used to consult her university's institutional review board (IRB). Now she works for an IRB — but not by choice.

Thanks to sequestration — the automatic budget cuts introduced in 2013 to reduce the federal deficit — research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies have become more difficult than ever to receive. Researchers with already funded grants have seen their budgets cut in mid-stream, making it harder to keep graduate students and other staff on projects, enroll a sufficient number of subjects in research studies and answer the questions they were funded to answer. Even many well-established researchers are now so worried about their future prospects they're considering their options.

Reed is one of them. With a completely grant-funded position at Columbia, she worried that her budget would be cut even if one of the grants she submitted to NIH was funded. Most of the peers she trained with have already left the field. She jumped ship, too.

"I was forced to accept an administrative position after preparing to be a career scientist," says Reed. These days, Reed has a full-time job as an IRB administrator at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, shepherding submitted research protocols through the IRB process from beginning to end. While she still maintains her status as an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology in psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center, her research and teaching role has been drastically reduced. Says Reed, "Although this is not what I spent almost 20 years training to do, it offered me security and a new career path that will hopefully lead to something just as rewarding as my research did."

After Reed accepted the new job, she discovered that one of her grant proposals had received funding after all, but had to ask her mentor to take over as principal investigator. "I still have a small part in that grant, but that wasn't what I trained for and lived for," she says.

Losing funding and morale

Sequestration was never meant to happen. In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if lawmakers couldn't agree on a plan to cut the deficit, then automatic, across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending would kick in in 2013. The hope was that lawmakers would find that prospect so unappealing they would come to agreement.

That didn't happen, and now psychological researchers are paying the price, along with children dropped from Head Start programs, families without access to food stamps and other Americans suddenly without access to much-needed government services.

At NIH, for instance, sequestration has meant a cut of about $1.7 billion — about 5.5 percent of its almost $30 billion budget. As part of its plan to absorb that reduction, NIH funded 640 fewer noncompeting grants in fiscal year 2013 than the 25,631 it funded in fiscal year 2012. The average funding success rate was less than 20 percent in fiscal year 2013. Researchers with ongoing grants have had to absorb unexpected cuts of 5 to 8 percent.

At NSF, sequestration and other cuts have meant a more than two percent decrease in its 2013 budget. NSF chose not to cut ongoing grants but instead chose to fund about 1,000 fewer grants in fiscal year 2013 than it did in 2012, with an estimated 21 percent success rate.

While the short-term effects are dire, say Reed and others, the longer-term impact may be even worse. In the absence of legislation to overturn it, the law cuts about $109 billion in budget authority — what Congress is actually authorized to spend — each year, half from defense and half from non-defense accounts, for the next decade. With morale dropping, would-be graduate students may decide to seek more secure career paths, for example. And with researchers unable to get funding and shying away from ideas with greater risk but potentially bigger pay-offs, they say, scientific progress and American competitiveness may also suffer.

Psychologist Steven F. Warren, PhD, who oversees all research conducted at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has already seen sequestration's impact firsthand.

Both the number and size of awards has dropped, says Warren, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and a professor of applied behavioral sciences. Getting federal funding is highly competitive in the best of conditions, he says. These days, however, it's much more difficult.

"It becomes almost a lottery as to who actually gets funding," he says, explaining that many great proposals don't get funded simply because there's not enough money. "It's not about merit."

That hits young faculty members and graduate students especially hard, says Warren. And not getting grants now can affect them for the rest of their careers, he says. Students who can't get their research funded — or even participate in other people's research — may decide to switch to business or some other field where they feel they're more likely to be able to make a living, he says.

For junior faculty, the inability to get funding lessens their chances of getting tenure and becoming successful scholars, says Warren. Because scientists need preliminary studies — what Warren calls the "seed corn of science" — to build from, periods of inactivity or low activity make them even less competitive in the long run. Some people, including graduate students and researchers whose salaries depend on grant funding, may even lose their jobs, he adds.

But it's not just young and would-be investigators who are suffering, says Warren. Even researchers with existing grants are hurting. Researchers who already have federal funding have seen significant cuts, which means they have to do their research on much tighter budgets than they had planned. That can make it hard to do the research right, says Warren, making it difficult, for example, to hire graduate research assistants or even undergraduates to help with the work.

With additional cuts scheduled well into the future, sequestration may also harm scientific progress itself, warns Warren. In a funding environment like this one, he says, both peer reviewers and scientists themselves tend to stay conservative. Scientists may stop submitting proposals for studies that are less likely to produce meaningful results but would produce interesting, highly significant findings if they do, for example.

"There's a tendency to go low risk, to avoid the high risk but potentially high pay-off kind of research everyone would like to do," says Warren. "If the risks of doing it are greater than the possible rewards because of the fiscal environment, it just doesn't get done."

The impact will worsen the longer sequestration continues, Warren predicts.

"We're just moving into sequestration right now, so we're early in this," he says. "It's a slow-growing cancer whose effects will accelerate over time and become a really serious disease eating away at the system of research and research support we have in this country."

Sequestration has already had a major impact on the career of psychologist Brent A. Moore, PhD.

Until this year, Moore was well on his way to a career as a successful independent researcher intent on developing automated treatments for substance abuse. Because his position at Yale was entirely grant-funded, he had to seek a new job when only one of his grant proposals got funded. He is now part of a Veterans Administration team evaluating people with chronic pain and opioid dependence and spends just 40 percent of his time on his own research.

"I'm not independent now," says Moore, who is now a research psychologist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in addition to being an associate research scientist in the psychiatry department at Yale University School of Medicine. "My salary is being covered, and I'm grateful for that, but I'm not able to just go and continue my own line of research."

Still, Moore counts himself as one of the lucky ones, adding that he's hearing major concerns even among very well-established researchers he would never expect to have trouble. "They're wondering how they're going to pay not only for their laboratories and the groups they've set up but also their own salaries," he says.

The result has been a flooding of the funding market, says Moore. "People are putting in many more grants in the hopes that something will hit," he says. "I don't think that's making for better research."

Taking action

APA and others are working to help ensure that long-term damage doesn't come to pass, pushing Congress to act and educating the public about sequestration's impact.

"Congress has to take action or sequestration keeps going for 10 years," says Patricia Clem Kobor, senior science policy analyst in APA's Science Government Relations Office.

Among other efforts, APA has urged members of the congressional Budget Conference Committee to safeguard funding of interest to psychologists. In a November letter, for instance, APA urged policymakers to replace sequestration with a deficit-reduction plan that would allow for sustained investment in such areas as education, research, health and mental health services, training of mental and behavioral health professionals and anti-poverty programs.

APA is also a member of the Coalition for Health Funding, which along with other coalitions has launched an initiative called NDD United to save nondefense discretionary (NDD) programs from additional devastating cuts. APA co-sponsored an NDD United report, released in November. "Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer and Less Secure" describes the impact cuts have had on issues of concern to psychologists, including a $2.3 billion cut to discretionary education programs and $414 million cut to Head Start.

APA's Div. 27 (Society for Community Research and Action) is helping to ensure that the public and others know about those cuts. The division has created an infographic that explains sequestration, its impact and how people can help. Div. 27 is encouraging its members to disseminate the infographic and contact their legislators, says DePaul University psychology professor Leonard Jason, PhD, who helped create the infographic.

"Sequestration gets very complicated and it can take a lot of work to understand the issue," says Madison Sunnquist, a research assistant in Jason's lab who helped create the infographic. "Putting it into a visually pleasing, simple form can help people understand it so they can take action."

The infographic broadens the discussion beyond the impact on psychologists and their research, adds Jason.

"The most vulnerable people are often the ones who have the least voice," he says. "How do we speak for them — people who are going to lose food stamps, Head Start and a host of other programs that people in our society depend on?"

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further reading

• APA Div. 27 (Society for Community Research and Action). (2013). "How sequestrable are you?" Available at http://communitypsychologypractice.blogspot.com/2013/05/how-sequestrable-are-you.html.

• National Institutes of Health. (2013). "Fact sheet: Impact of Sequestration on the National Institutes of Health." Available at www.nih.gov/news/health/jun2013/nih-03.htm.

• National Science Foundation. (2013). "Update to important notice 133." Available at www.nsf.gov/pubs/2013/in133a/in133a.jsp?WT.mc_ID=USNF_80.

• NDD United. (2013). "Faces of austerity: How budget cuts have made us sicker, poorer and less secure." Available at http://publichealthfunding.org/NDD_report/NDD-report-digital.pdf.