Science researchers brace for possible federal funding cuts

May 18, 2017

When President Trump’s administration debuted its proposed federal budget, it slashed funding for science, from environmental to health research. Congress still needs to sign off on any budget before it goes into effect, but there is growing concern among scientists that the administration will cut large sources of research funding.

In a lab at Brandeis University, a very sophisticated microscope churned to life.

“It’s great technology for actually watching molecules moving around inside a living neuron,” said Avital Rodal, a biologist here who studies, among other things, diseases like Lou Gehrig’s and Alzheimer’s. She uses this microscope to do her work, and it cost $800,000.

Rodal compares running her lab to a small business. Her budget for salaries, equipment, overhead and travel runs about $700,000 per year. A good chunk of that money comes from grants from federal agencies, like the National Institutes of Health. But the Trump administration’s proposal would cut the NIH budget by 18 percent, which had Rodal worried.

“Uncertainty means that you can’t hire people or you can’t start a new project,” Rodal said. “Uncertainty means not funding new scientific ideas.”

Ben Hamlington, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University who studies sea-level rise, shared Rodal’s concerns. He’s on the hook to bring in half a million a year to keep his lab running, and most of that money comes from NASA.

“I think climate change and sea-level rise type work will come under extra scrutiny just because of the political nature of it,” Hamlington said.

The president’s budget plan seeks to reduce funding for NASA’s Earth Science missions and grants. Hamlington anticipated more competition for fewer resources and a hit to student funding.

NASA declined to comment. The NIH wrote that it has had a “long history of bipartisan support and stands ready to work with the administration to improve people’s health.”

Meanwhile, Hamlington has been looking for money elsewhere. And when his students have asked for advice, he's told them to do good work.

“The climate change problem’s not going away,” he said. “So there’s a need for good science whether or not the government’s funding this research. So I think eventually, there’ll be a home for your knowledge.”

Until then, scientists across the country, across disciplines, are waiting to see what happens as Congress takes up the budget debate.

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