I’m a young scientist and sequestration will hurt me

Jeff Leek

I’m a biostatistician. That means that I help scientists and doctors analyze their medical data to try to figure out new screening tools, new therapies, and new ways to improve patients’ health. I’m also a professor. I  spend a good fraction of my time teaching students about analyzing data in classes here at my university and online. Big data/data analysis is an area of growth for the U.S. economy and some have even suggested that there will be a critical shortage of trained data analysts.

I have other responsibilities but these are the two biggies - teaching and research. I work really hard to be good at them because I’m passionate about education and I’m passionate about helping people. I’m by no means the only (relatively) young person with this same drive. I would guess this is a big reason why a lot of people become scientists. They want to contribute to both our current knowledge (research) and the future of knowledge (teaching).

My salary comes from two places - the students who pay tuition at our school and, to a much larger extent, the federal government’s research funding through the NIH. So you are paying my salary. The way that the NIH distributes that funding is through a serious and very competitive process. I submit proposals of my absolute best ideas, so do all the other scientists in the U.S., and they are evaluated by yet another group of scientists who don’t have a vested interest in our grants. This system is the reason that only the best, most rigorously vetted science is funded by taxpayer money.

It is very hard to get a grant. In 2012, between 7% and 16% of new projects were funded. So you have to write a proposal that is better than 84-93% of all other proposals being submitted by other really, really smart and dedicated scientists. The practical result is that it is already very difficult for a good young scientist to get a grant. The NIH recognizes this and implements special measures for new scientists to get grants, but it still isn’t easy by any means.

Sequestration will likely dramatically reduce the fraction of grants that get funded. Already on that website, the “payline” or cutoff for funding, has dropped from 10% of grants in 2012 to 6% in 2013 for some NIH institutes. If sequestration goes through, it will be worse - maybe a lot worse. The result is that it will go from being really hard to get individual grants to nearly impossible. If that happens, many young scientists like me won’t be able to get grants. No matter how passionate we are about helping people or doing the right thing, many of us will have to stop being researchers and scientists and get other jobs to pay the bills - we have to eat.

So if sequestration or other draconian cuts to the NIH go through, they will hurt me and other junior scientists like me. It will make it harder - if not impossible - for me to get grants. It will affect whether I can afford to educate the future generation of students who will analyze all the data we are creating. It will create dramatic uncertainty/difficulty in the lives of the young biological scientists I work with who may not be able to rely on funding from collaborative grants to the extent that I can. In the end, this will hurt me, it will hurt my other scientific colleagues, and it could dramatically reduce our competitiveness in science technology and mathematics (STEM) for years to come. Steven wrote this up beautifully on his blog.

I know that these cuts will also affect the lives of many other people from all walks of life, not just scientists. So I hope that Congress will do the right thing and decide that hurting all these people isn’t worth the political points they will score - on both sides. Sequestration isn’t the right choice - it is the choice that was most politically expedient when people’s backs were against the wall.

Instead of making dramatic, untested, and possibly disastrous cuts across the board for political reasons, let’s do what scientists and statisticians have been doing for years when deciding which drugs work and don’t. Let’s run controlled studies and evaluate the impact of budget cuts to different programs - as Ben Goldacre and his colleagues of so beautifully laid out in their proposal. That way we can bring our spending into line, but sensibly and based on evidence, rather than the politics of the moment or untested economic models not based on careful experimentation.