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Funding cuts take a toll on research at the University of Utah


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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah researchers have made phenomenal discoveries over the years, including gene mapping to help in early detection of cancers. The National Institutes of Health pays for most of that research, but that money has been hard to come by in recent years — why frustrations and funding fears are running high at what is considered one of the nation's top research facilities.

University of Utah Associate Professor of Human Genetics Nels Elde uses this analogy to paint a picture of the fierce competition for a shrinking amount of research funds coming out of the NIH: "It's like a gold mine in terms of the discoveries that are right kind of in our grasp, but we spend more and more time looking for the shovels instead of actually digging and making those discoveries."

A decade's worth of ups and downs in NIH funding is making it hard to focus on the science. And it is happening at a time when the science is more amazing than it's ever been, according to University of Utah Associate Professor of Human Genetics Gabrielle Kardon. "The excitement about the science is super high," she said. "We're in an amazing place, and it's a little bit frustrating to have the funds so much more difficult to obtain."

Dr. Dean Li is the Chief Scientific Officer at University of Utah Health Sciences. He's conducted plenty of groundbreaking research himself in addition to supervising and recruiting researchers to the University of Utah. He's worried about cuts and a flattening out of NIH funding because "it also sends a signal to people going into the field," he said. "Is this a field that is expanding? That we as a nation think is important?"

Li has felt the euphoria and the heartbreak of NIH boom-and-bust funding. Before the Ebola outbreak became news, funding cutbacks cost the University of Utah valuable research into the best type of drug treatment for Ebola. "These are people who have thought about, 'I've got a technology, and this is a new way to make medicine, and a perfect place to do it is in Ebola.' And it's not being funded because there's not enough money," Li said.

It's like a gold mine in terms of the discoveries that are right kind of in our grasp, but we spend more and more time looking for the shovels instead of actually digging and making those discoveries.

–U. Associate Professor of Human Genetics, Nels Elde

Over the last decade, NIH funding at the University of Utah has been pretty flat — which actually means it's been dropping, when you consider scientific inflation which includes annual spikes in equipment costs, salaries for researchers, and other expenses involved in running a research lab. Stimulus money gave the University of Utah a bit of relief in 2009 and 2010, but in 2013 it was hard for any new applicants to get funded. Right now, only one in six grant proposals are getting funded compared to one in three over the past 50 years.

Graduate students like Hannah Gordon, a Ph.D. candidate in human genetics, are worried. "Unfortunately, what that seems like it is resulting in is there are less people coming into science, so there are less young researchers," she said.

Alex Keefe is studying to be both a doctor and a researcher at the University of Utah and says, "I'm not sure we're going to be able to solve all the world's problems with this limited kind of funding available."

Keefe and Gordon are part of what Li calls the revolutionary, transformational workforce of the future — people who are fueling the science with their enthusiasm. "It comes from crazy ideas of young folks who are staying up all night saying, 'Why don't we do it this way?' " says Li.

Keefe is frustrated but not disheartened, saying, "I still feel really passionate that this is what I want to do, but I'm certainly scared for what the future is going to be."

So what is the future of NIH funding for biomedical research? Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, are working on a bipartisan proposal to spend $1 billion a year more on medical research. Seventy-five percent of that money would go to the NIH. University of Utah researchers know they'll have to speak up in support of this legislation. Elde says, "This is just a start and, in fact, we really need to invest in our future in science in order to really sustain this and renew our commitment to science going forward."

Prospects for passage of the Hatch and Warren legislation, once it is drafted, may have gotten a boost with Hatch assuming the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in January.


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Sandra Olney


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