(Image via Shutterstock)
(Image via Shutterstock)

Nine months into federal budget sequestration, there’s no shortage of studies, articles, and speculation about how trimmed funding is having an impact on the U.S. There is far less work going into figuring out how to right the ship. One answer, painful to many scientists, is that they have to become a little better at marketing. Otherwise we will end up with less visionary science.
In the life sciences, the sequestration cut 4.9 percent from the budget of the National Institutes of Health, a move that has already been felt at universities, research organizations, and medical centers around the country. A new survey [PDF] from university associations reports that academic labs are seeing reduced funding, staff layoffs, and delayed or canceled research programs.
You might not care about a scientist whose grant to study gene regulation in a scarce plant didn’t come through. What you should care about is that the lung cancer treatment that may have been developed based on better knowledge about the plant’s gene regulation will now never come to market.
In science, the most devastating effects of slashed funding are not the near-term but the long-term. A tremendous ripple effect begins when funding is cut. It is impossible to quantify the loss; no one can say what could have been discovered or invented if only budgets had permitted.
Tight funding alters the scientific landscape. Scientists, who are continually submitting grant proposals for research projects they think will make a difference, react to government cuts the way investors do to an economic slump: they become highly risk-averse. With slimmer chances of winning a grant, scientists steer clear of truly innovative research, favoring safer projects that are more likely to be funded. The move from high-risk, high-reward projects to low-risk, low-reward ones means that, as a society, we trade visionary, big-leap ideas—like Jeanne Lawrence’s amazing work on a new approach for Down syndrome—for incremental steps and slow progress.
The sequester’s impact is not just affecting ivory tower scientists. In the past decade, beleaguered pharmaceutical companies have cut costs in drug discovery and development by outsourcing the highest-risk steps in R&D, like finding and validating a biomarker related to a disease. Academic medical centers and small biotech companies—both funded largely by the federal government—stepped in to fill the need. Small companies or universities have been licensing more drug candidates than ever into the drug pipelines of pharmaceutical companies. Tightened funding leaves the entire industry with fewer potential new ways to treat disease.
Is there a solution? Researchers can’t reverse budget cuts. But at a recent meeting of technology-focused scientists, a speaker from NIH made the point that proving the success of grant-funded programs is essential for continued support from Congress. Every grant doesn’t have to result in a successful outcome, but if quantifiable progress across a portfolio of projects can be shown, it should help NIH justify its annual budget request.
Scientists hate hearing this; many interpret it as a call to market their own research programs. But demonstrating success metrics could be as simple as alerting the funding agency when a grant-funded project gets published in a peer-reviewed journal, or when a university licenses intellectual property from a project to a company.
The scientific community would be in a stronger position if it were better at communicating the impact and potential of the work it undertakes with taxpayer dollars. Scientists are better at, well, doing science than at conveying the importance of their work to the general public. But failure to explain fuels widespread misperceptions about how much good the funding is doing (case in point: Sarah Palin’s memorable jab at research involving fruit flies).
It’s time for scientists and their university public relations teams to step up and find new ways to explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it could help an average citizen. It will not be easy, but the prize could be improved funding for research as a whole.