STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Scientists are struggling to keep up their work in a world of declining funds. University labs depend on federal support to make progress against cancer, Alzheimer's, Ebola and more. And in the past decade, that funding has taken a roller coaster ride.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The National Institutes of Health provides almost two-thirds of all the federal research funding that flows to universities.
INSKEEP: And under two previous presidents - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - that funding doubled.
GREENE: The NIH passed on money to universities. They threw up new buildings and hired new professors.
INSKEEP: And their research was seen as maintaining this nation's competitive edge in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. But in recent years funding has declined, leading to lab closures and layoffs.
GREENE: NPR's Richard Harris has a series of reports on the effect. He begins with a story of scientists who are trying to keep moving forward.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Ten years ago, Rob Waterland got a professorship at the Baylor College of Medicine. He set out to study the nation's most pressing problems - obesity. In particular, he's been trying to figure out the biology behind why children born to obese women are more likely to develop the condition themselves. Waterland got sustaining funding from the National Institutes of Health and used it to get the going.
ROB WATERLAND: And the lab is right down here.
HARRIS: But after years of success in this line of research, he's suddenly in limbo. His NIH grant ran out in 2012, and he hasn't been able to get it renewed.
WATERLAND: We're in survival mode right now.
HARRIS: His research can't move forward without funding, and he's hardly alone. Thirty-five researchers at his university lost their sustaining grants in 2012 according to an NPR analysis and nationwide that figure was nearly 3,500. NIH funding has been in decline for years and Baylor College of Medicine really felt the pinch. You can see that simply by taking a stroll.
WATERLAND: We can walk down to another lab area, and you can see that the lab area is all set up. There's equipment here, but the lights are off because nobody's here whatsoever. And so in this whole row of three labs where, you know, six or seven years ago there might have easily been 10 people working in here, now there's one person that we were able to find.
HARRIS: For the time being, Waterland has some modest funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a stopgap grant from Baylor.
WATERLAND: If I don't get another NIH grant say within the next year then I will have to let some people go in my lab. That's a fact, and there could be a point at which I'm not able to keep a lab.
HARRIS: He worries most about losing his two research assistants who have spent years figuring out all the procedures that make his studies possible. If they go, he says he'd have to start afresh and that would cost him five years.
WATERLAND: Even though it's a short lapse in funding, it can be a huge setback for a laboratory and for a research program.
HARRIS: He's applied for eight new NIH grants; none of them has come through. He's now trying again to renew his grant to fund the obesity research. The underlying problem is that NIH grant funding has been in decline as Congress has been reducing discretionary spending. Research is also getting more expensive. So that's putting a real squeeze on thousands of university laboratories. This is where new ideas for preventing and treating diseases have historically taken shape and what was once a joyful exploration of the frontiers of science is now a mad scramble for money. Waterland remains outwardly optimistic but it's tough.
WATERLAND: The only people who can survive in this environment are the people who are absolutely passionate and who persistently apply for funding.
HARRIS: And the money scramble - never easy, has been getting harder year-by-year. Just ask Kim Kelly. She's at the University of Virginia where about 30 scientists lost their primary NIH grants in 2012. She's trying to develop a better way to diagnose pancreatic cancer, to find it earlier in a more treatable stage. Her main grant expired, but she was able to keep her lab running on some leftover dollars and she turned her attention to writing grants.
KIM KELLY: I usually use the 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. after my children are in bed till 2 o'clock in the morning, fueled by Diet Coke and Peanut M&Ms to write. And I usually get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to get the kids off on the bus. So we're talking almost a year of about four to five hours worth of sleep.
HARRIS: Kelly's grueling push finally paid off, she got new grants. But many of her colleagues at the University of Virginia are still struggling. Some have retired and others say they're on the brink of quitting mid-career.
DAN BURKE: Richard, I take it?
BURKE: Nice to meet you.
HARRIS: Nice to meet you.
Until this summer ,Dan Burke's lab at the University of Virginia had continuous NIH funding since 1987. He studies the most basic mechanics of DNA. Now 60 years old, he sees a bleak future for his laboratory. He's already fired his technical staff, and he's down to just two graduate students. And the science is suffering. He points up at a whiteboard it his office to make a point.
BURKE: When funding was good several years ago, we would spend a huge amount of time at the whiteboard, OK, and thinking up ideas, planning out experiments, looking at the data and then, you know, re-drawing, rethinking it. That's what you should do.
HARRIS: Government-funded science is the engine of innovation in this country Burke says and with so many new technologies in biology, these are truly exciting times.
BURKE: We just do almost none of it now. Don't have time.
HARRIS: So what percentage of your time do you spend just trying to get more money?
BURKE: Seventy-five percent - at least.
HARRIS: Seventy-five percent?
HARRIS: So that's 25 percent of the time left to do science?
BURKE: Well, hardly.
HARRIS: He says don't forget teaching and administrative duties. Now in absolute terms there is a lot of money available for biomedical research. The NIH budget is about $30 billion a year but funding hasn't been consistent. So today's supply and demand are completely out of whack.
BURKE: There was an increase in the budget, where they doubled the NIH budget essentially. Unfortunately a lot of research institutions and medical schools were hogs to the trough. They hired a lot of people, built a lot of buildings with the expectation that that would continue and when that flattened off and then of course began to lose money to inflation, then the institutions were essentially bloated.
HARRIS: And now comes the reckoning as that money gets spread thinner and thinner. Burke hears the same story throughout his professional network.
BURKE: Whether their at the top-flight research institutes or at the probably less famous research universities I've heard people say that if I don't get the next grant funded I'm going to have to close my lab and that's the way I feel about it to. There's no other source of funding. There's no other way to keep the enterprise going.
HARRIS: Tell me about the punching bag, that's on your desk over there.
BURKE: That's a gift from my wife to take care of frustrations. So I turn around - it's suction cupped on the thing - when I get frustrated I turn around and I punch it.
HARRIS: Can I punch it?
BURKE: Yeah, sure. It gets punched once in a while.
BURKE: You know when I find out that the grant didn't get funded I turn around and give it another good smack (laughter).
HARRIS: Burke is in fact planning to close his lab. He's following his scientist wife to a university in North Carolina which offered him $500,000 of seed money to start again from scratch. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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