Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sequester adding to Brain Drain

According to "smart" people, millions of Americans are unemployed because they lack the necessary skills or education to find decent jobs (even though there are only 3.8 million posted job openings for 11.7 million unemployed).

Top officials at academic and medical institutions have grown convinced that years of stagnant budgets and recent cuts have ushered in the dark ages of science in America. What researchers have been saying:

  • "We needed another stimulus. Instead of the stimulus we got sequestration."
  • "Only if the drug companies found something they could copyright or patent would they do it."
  • "Medical research is not like building widgets. We cannot turn it on and off."

One scientist, Yuntao Wu of George Mason University, to address the current crisis, let go of his technician, stopped doing some research and submitted 10 new grant applications since February. He compared the process to scratching away at lottery tickets. Recently, he's begun thinking about leaving the country for greener pastures. "I am starting to set up collaboration with Chinese researchers because the funding here dried up."

It's not just projects receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health that have been set back by sequestration. Various other government agencies have seen their research budgets slashed as well. Early estimates from the American Association for the Advancement of Science projected that $9.3 billion would be cut from research and development projects in 2013 alone, including $6.4 billion from the Department of Defense.

Young scientists who had spent 12 years studying for their PhDs would find the climate inhospitable, and future generations would look elsewhere. "We used to be able to tell people that there was some kind of job security. That would be a compensation for not being paid as much. Now, if you are taking a big risk in investing 12 years of your life to learn how to do the science, people will think twice."

The non-technical term for this is "brain drain." It had been happening for years prior to sequestration, though the recent cuts have accelerated it. Antonsen, a plasma physicist who studies the production and interaction of electromagnetic fields with matter, said he has lost two staffers so far: one has left the country and another accepted a job at a Wall Street bank. A third is currently looking for work outside the field.

Boston University's Gursky said that her program in Physiology and Biophysics had had no incoming graduate students during the last two academic years, while the overall number of matriculating PhD students at other programs had "dropped sharply." Dutta said a prospective hire in India had recently turned down a job offer in favor of going to Germany.

No bill has been introduced in the Senate to replace the cuts to the NIH's budget. Meanwhile, the Democratic budget -- which would replace all of the sequester -- is mired in a standoff with Republicans, who want to replace the defense cuts contained in sequestration while expanding the domestic cuts.

During a press briefing in late July, Senator Harry Reid brought up the topic of NIH funding (again). "I am working to find a bipartisan solution to reverse the damaging effects of the sequester, including the harmful cuts to NIH funding," Reid said. "There’s absolutely no reason why Republicans shouldn’t be able to support funding for life-saving cures and treatments."

* Read the full story at the Huffington Post


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