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As Funding Drops, Young Researchers Suffer Most

By Sara Shipley Hiles

The physics department at MIT accepted only 25 graduate students this year, down from 50 in years past. Several job candidates turned down the prestigious school for work in other countries where science funding is considered more stable. And two MIT contracts with NASA — that PhD candidates rely on to pay for their work — were trimmed by 91 percent.

After years of steady support for science funding and a spurt in health sciences research over the last decade that drew many young people into research labs, federal funds are now flat or declining in many areas.

Researchers in nearly every field are finding it harder to win competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other research agencies. But those hurt most by the ultra-competitive climate, say academics at MIT and elsewhere, are young researchers who are just starting their studies or their careers.

“If you have three NIH grants and you lose one, you tighten your belt a little bit. If you’re junior faculty and you have one grant and you lose it, your career may be over,” said Karen Antman, provost of the medical campus at Boston University, where about half of the school’s 1,200 faculty members get NIH funding.

The United States still spends more money on scientific research than any other country; the amount for non-defense-related research and development has held steady since 2003 at about $57 billion a year in inflation-adjusted dollars, said Kei Koizumi, director of the budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a science advocacy group in Washington.

Science funding is somewhat cyclical. NIH saw its budget double between 1998 and 2003; it’s now $28.6 billion. But this year, Congress approved the first cut to NIH’s budget since 1970, according to the science association.

The National Science Foundation, another flagship science research agency, received a modest increase to its $5.6 billion budget. Because of inflation and other expenses, however, the agency has less research money in real terms than in the past few years, Koizumi said.

Many science advocates say the United States risks losing its competitive edge by backing down on funding at a time when China, India, and other countries are bulking up their science programs.

“If basic research is undercut, it will undercut the knowledge base that will drive industry in the future,” said Tobin Smith, an analyst with the Association of American Universities in Washington. The association represents 62 major research institutions in the United States and Canada, including MIT, Harvard University, and Brandeis University.

Last year, two researchers turned down job offers from MIT’s physics department and went to work instead in Europe, where funding is less of a struggle.

“It was quite striking,” said Marc A. Kastner, who heads the department. “It used to be that a position at MIT was the best in the world, and now people are turning us down.”

For new researchers trying to break into the field, the availability of funding is crucial. For NIH grants, for example, only one out of five applications is funded, and the average age of a first award for a PhD is 42, compared with age 37 in 1980, according to NIH data.

Don Gibbons, a spokesman for Harvard Medical School, said he worries that a “domino effect” will occur when young people see peers a few years ahead of them in school getting turned down for postdoctoral positions, faculty jobs, and grants. Students may lose interest in research and choose another career path.

“Our concern is really generational,” he said. “Are we going to lose a generation of the brightest scientists?”

To help young investigators get their first grants more quickly, the NIH encourages grant reviewers to give their applications “special consideration,” and the agency has started a pilot program to speed up the review process. NIH officials say they value new investigators as innovators of the future.

Penny Beuning, a postdoctoral student in biology at MIT, will soon face the challenge of getting her first major research grant when she joins the faculty of Northeastern University’s chemistry and chemical biology department in July. The school offered her start-up money, but Beuning will be expected to find her own funding fairly quickly.

“Generally, at least one research grant is required to get tenure,” she said. “If you don’t have one, it’s nerve-racking.”

Rebeca Rosengaus, an assistant biology professor at Northeastern University, won a $503,000 NSF grant for researchers early in their careers, but it took her two tries to get it.

Before she snagged the grant, “I was worried sick,” said Rosengaus, who studies the reproductive strategies and social behavior of termites. “A lot of your future depends on whether you can get funded. Every, year you have to send a grant somewhere to secure continued funding.”