Professor Carol Lange recently had three graduate students do working rotations in the University of Minnesota lab where she studies how hormones affect cancer, with a special focus on women’s cancers — breast and ovarian.
Normally, Lange might hire some of them for research jobs that would help them fund and complete their degrees. In addition to research, over the last two decades, she’s trained more than 30 scientists in her lab. But this year, despite two of the students’ expression of interest in working with her, she felt she had to say no.
“I don’t want to start a student right now and then have to lay off somebody else,” she said. Her work relies on grants from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S.’ major scientific research funding arm.
The change in behavior stems from a fear of budget cuts. Last month, President Donald Trump’s quest to increase military spending while decreasing discretionary spending resulted in a budget proposal that included an 18 percent cut to the $32 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health (more than 80 percent of the NIH budget goes toward research grants).
That cut comes on top of decades of erosion of funding for the NIH. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, the NIH lost about a quarter of its purchasing power, due to inflation. As a result, the NIH award rate — the share of research grant applications that are funded out of all applications — has declined from about 30 percent in 2000 to about 16 percent in 2014, according to the NIH.
Budget cuts of the magnitude Trump proposed would put the agency close to its 2003 funding levels in nominal dollars — even less if you account for inflation. For the state of Minnesota, researchers worry that could mean fewer pathways into science careers for students and less cutting-edge research that helps drive the state’s economy.
Turning to other sources
The flatlining of federal research funding has affected more than individual researchers, said Bob Nellis, the manager of Mayo Clinic research communications. Federal research funding levels have a big impact on Minnesota’s institutions, which in turn, affect Minnesota’s economy.
Last year, Minnesota researchers were awarded $520 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, to institutions that blanket much of the state, making it, among states, the 10th largest recipient of award dollars that year per capita.
Data from the NIH show that 1,029 grants, ranging from $1,063 to $29 million were awarded to researchers at 32 Minnesota institutions last year, from Aclaris Medical, LLC, a Falcon Heights company working on a post-traumatic stress disorder monitoring system, to Vixar, Inc., in Plymouth, which is developing technology for imaging breast malignancies.
By far, researchers affiliated with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (awarded grants worth $244 million), and the Mayo Clinic (grants worth $220.9 million) were the biggest recipients of federal NIH research awards last year.
Nellis said federal funding — mostly from the NIH — made up about 41 percent of Mayo’s $710 million medical research budget last year, and the clinic is keeping an eye on the federal budgeting process, and urging members of Congress to support “robust” research funding.
While Mayo has increased the amount of money it pours into research itself, and its philanthropic funding for research has nearly doubled in the last decade, NIH funding remains a major driver of innovation at the clinic and in the industry, Nellis said.
At the University of Minnesota, the overall research funding from outside sources has increased, even as the share of funding from federal research awards, including grants from the NIH, has seen an overall decline in the last five years.
In recent years, the University of Minnesota Medical School's ranking for NIH funds has dropped — from 28th in the country in 2012 to 32nd in 2015. Its U.S. News and World Report ranking for research has also seen a decline, from 35th in 2016 to 44th this year.
While some argue private funding should subsidize or supplant public dollars for scientific research, others argue federal research and development funds are responsible for the U.S.’s top ranking in research and development, and is a major economic engine: a 2015 study by Harvard researchers found that many of the most important drugs developed in recent years came out of federally funded research.
Despite the diversification in funding sources, research institutions need federal funding to keep up high-caliber research, Nellis said. Pure science isn’t always lucrative – breakthroughs can come incrementally, slowly, or not at all. And sometimes research aimed at discovery in one area turns up innovation in another.
“I don’t know if people really understand how medical research is funded,” Nellis said. “It’s not funded by industry, for the most part, and it’s not funded by institutions, like universities … it is funded by the NIH.”
For researchers, the dearth of federal grants and the payline’s dropoff has meant more competition for grants, Lange said. Compared to when she first had her lab in 1999, she spends a lot more time applying to more grants to keep her work funded. In addition to working as a professor, she is also affiliated with the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center and the vice president of basic science at the Endocrine Society.
“I sit in my office and write. I don’t actually do science anymore, which is heartbreaking,” she said.
On Earth Day later this month, thousands of Minnesotans are expected to participate in the March for Science-Minnesota, the mission of which is to “(defend) and (celebrate) publicly funded and publicly accessible science as a foundation of American freedom and prosperity.” The march, tapping into fears in the scientific and broader community about cuts to science funding and a perception of the de-legitimization of science in politics, is one of many around the country that day.
How likely the fear of research cuts is to be realized is still unclear: Trump has yet to release a detailed budget wishlist, and it’s Congress — where the NIH has supporters on both sides of the aisle — that has the power of the purse.
Just two years ago, bipartisan support for research funding resulted in the passage of the largest funding increase to the NIH in more than a decade, according to McClatchy News. In November, Congress overwhelmingly passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which further increased research funding and was supported by all 10 members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.
When Trump’s budget proposal was released mid-March, cuts to the NIH were a provision that Republicans — who tend to share the president’s vision of a slimmer federal budget — criticized.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, expressed support for prioritizing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer research.
“More than 300 members voted to boost medical research by billions in November,” he said in a statement, “We cannot turn around a few short months later and slash its budget.”
But Republican campaign promises put pressure on them to cut from somewhere, and scientists worry that any cuts — even smaller ones — could have a demoralizing effect on the industry, and hurt the U.S.’s ability to compete with other developed nations in science.
“Really outstanding science doesn’t get funded,” Lange said. “A lot of talented people are leaving science and doing other things.”
Lange said that in this environment, she’d be surprised if the 18 percent cut passed, but she worries the threat of it will make a 3 percent or 5 percent cut seem like less of a big deal. In 2013, a 5 percent, $1.71 billion cut to the NIH due to federal sequestration led to an 8 percent drop in grant awards, according to Science Magazine.
“We’ve been struggling for many years now with a flat NIH payline (the share of applications funded). Even if it goes down a few percent — 5 percent — it’s devastating,” Lange said.