In a laboratory centered in the University of Iowa’s Bowen Science Building, Patrick M. Schlievert spends his days investigating serious human illnesses and looking for ways to stop them.
Since 1980, Schlievert and his colleagues have described 25 new infectious diseases, beginning with toxic shock syndrome – the condition that killed Muppets puppeteer Jim Henson in 1990.
The chairman of the UI Department of Microbiology has advised on 10,000-plus patient cases and said those consultations – along with the indirect effect of his career’s research – have saved the United States at least $10 billion in health care costs, not to mention countless lives.
Spend 10 minutes with Schlievert and he’ll bombard you with ideas about new research he’s conducting linked to heart infection, urinary tract infections, diabetes and SIV– the primate form of HIV.
But as of this fall, much of his work has been hindered – if not outright halted.
“We have no funding to follow these studies,” Schlievert explained. “In the last year and a half, I have submitted with collaborators in the department at least 15 grant applications to the (National Institutes of Health).
“Zero have been funded. There isn’t any money.”
The federal government’s budget sequestration, initiated March 1 as an austerity measure, forced the NIH to slash $1.55 billion of its fiscal 2013 budget, reducing the number of new research grants by 700 on the year and cutting some existing grants.
Research officials at the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have expressed concern about what the automatic spending cuts have meant and will mean for current and future researchers and for the nation as a whole as it tries to compete globally.
“I think someone needs to give Congress a swift kick in the butt because they don’t care and they don’t recognize what they’re doing,” Schlievert said.
“They are making a huge mistake. We will find out 5 to 10 years from now, and we might never be able to catch up.”
Fading federal research funding threatens the quality of health care, technological advancement and agricultural innovation here and around the world, university research officials said.
“We could save billions of dollars, not to mention lots and lots of people,” Schlievert added.
Schlievert said he now has one federal grant remaining, and a third of his department has none. Financial woes are steering budding scientists away from the field, and he – at age 64 – wonders how long he can continue applying for grants that never come.
“As a scientist,” he said, “you can’t keep beating your head against the wall writing those.”
In a letter he wrote to the NIH last week, Schlievert said, “I have saved the country billions, can likely save the country billions more, and I have essentially no funding to do any of these things.”
“I can sit on my butt and collect Social Security in two years, or I can develop these things which are critical to our health care system,” he wrote. “This is your call, that of the NIH as a whole, and that of Congress.”
“Diversifying the portfolio”
External research funding to the UI from federal agencies has been declining for years, and the new spending cuts just made matters worse. Federal research dollars into the UI totaled $246.5 million in the 2013 budget year, down from $310.7 million in the 2010 budget year, according to UI records.
The UI still is topping $400 million in external research funding on the year, but much of that is fueled by gains in corporate, industry and philanthropic funding. In fact, non-federal research funding at the UI reached $177.6 million in the 2013 budget year, up from $155.6 million in 2010.
Daniel Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development, said that increase didn’t happen by accident.
“How do you help people be competitive when competition is intense?” Reed said. “We are diversifying the portfolio. We are building more partnerships with the private sector.”
Reed said his office is providing seed money for new projects that need help making grant requests more competitive. The UI also is bringing people together into multidisciplinary collaborations as a way to make them stand out.
“And if they are in a dry spot, we try to provide bridge funding to help them through,” Reed said. “We are helping people be as successful as they can be.”
Still, he said, there are far more good ideas among UI researchers than money to go around, and that is true nationwide. Should the cuts in federal research funding persist, Reed said, he’s worried about the nation’s ability to compete.
“This is at a time when other rising economies, like China, are investing heavily in research,” he said.
By slashing support for research, the United States is “essentially killing the scientific advantage we have been developing for the past 60 years,” said Bernd Fritzsch, professor and chairman of the UI Department of Biology.
Fritzsch said he came to the United States from Germany because of this country’s superior research structure. Now, Fritzsch said, he’s being contacted by international bodies asking whether researchers here might be interested in moving overseas.
“I contacted my Chinese friends in the United States, and one is interested after being disappointed with the funding status right now,” he said.
Fritzsch said he oversees one UI investigator whose line of research is in “shambles” because he’s lost federal funding.
“I know a man who is close to tears because his lab has to be shut down,” Fritzsch said. “What are you supposed to do as chair? Bring him through dire straits with the hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel?
“Right now, I think that tunnel looks awfully long and awfully dim.”
While the UI gets most of its federal research funding from the NIH — for its medical work — Iowa State researchers gets most of their federal support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation for environmental and agricultural studies.
“It’s becoming a very, very competitive environment – more so than we have ever seen in the past,” said Miles Lackey, associate chief of staff in the ISU president’s office.
Lackey said ISU researchers have felt the pinch from sequester-related cuts and from the recent government shutdown. Some current ISU projects, for example, are time sensitive and involve scientists from the national agriculture research service.
“It’s harvest time right now, and some of that research has been halted,” Lackey said. “It’s a bad time for those researchers to be pulled away from their jobs. You could potentially lose a lot of vital research and the benefits from it.”
UNI focuses much of its research in education-related areas and hasn’t been hit as hard as other regent universities.
Tolif Hunt, UNI’s grants and contracts administrator, agreed the race for funding is more competitive, but he believes researchers are resilient.
Still, faculty members in labs across Iowa have been forced to cut projects and eliminate lab staff. The concern is that some young scientists pushed out of jobs early in their careers might leave the field and never return.
“Most of our people really want to continue to do research – they love what they do and are passionate about their ideas,” said Patricia Winokur, associate dean for UI Clinical and Translational Science. “But do they eventually get discouraged and give up?
“The answer is yes.”