WASHINGTON, DC—The news these days is full of the effects of the so-called "sequester," the mandatory, across-the-board 5% cut in federal funding for a wide range of government agencies. In response to the cuts affecting the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientists and disease advocates have demonstrated here in Washington, with chants of "more hope, more progress, more life" resounding in the street. At universities across the country, meanwhile, "unease takes hold" as "administrators and professors wonder which projects will be trimmed or eliminated" and which staffers and students may need to be axed, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (Subscription required). Indeed, the Chronicle reports, foreboding has built for months as it became increasingly apparent that, despite the best efforts of academic science's lobbying operation, the cuts would actually happen.


The 8 April rally in downtown Washington, DC, for sustained biomedical research funding.

David Malakoff


The pain of disappointed scientists and the loss of knowledge from derailed projects are very real. Sequestration, the result of unconscionable arrogance and intransigence among our national leaders, is possibly the stupidest and most heedless policy inflicted on the nation in many years. But, in addition to spreading anguish on campuses nationwide and threatening to derail careers, stymie proposals, and curtail current research, it does something else: It casts a revealing light on deep problems in how the nation finances academic science.

"Universities are severely threatened when funding for grants plateaus, or does not grow sufficiently to keep pace with the expansion" of grant-funded facilities and soft-money personnel, writes economist Paula Stephan in her astute and important book, How Economics Shapes Science. "They face even more serious prospects when budgets decline in real terms." That is because, she explains, the incentives in the current system encourage universities to expand facilities and take on ever-increasing numbers of graduate students and postdocs to work in labs. Those trends have combined to encourage "many more applicants" and much stiffer competition for grants and renewals, according to NIH.  This exposes programs and careers to ever-greater risk in case funding levels fall.

As we reported at in January 2012 when Stephan's book was published (and at many other times as well), she and many other authorities believe the current system is unsustainable and needs serious reform. It needs to provide greater stability and predictability for programs and careers and more rational use of the nation's scientific talent and resources. Any cut in potentially lifesaving research is unfortunate, of course, but a well-designed system should not be sent into severe crisis by a 5% drop in revenue. While better financing is always desirable, a reformed system would have the resilience and stability to survive such traumas without major losses to scientific progress or developing careers.

The current situation shows that these experts' fears about the system's instability were well founded. It also suggests that amidst the undeserved pain to vulnerable (mostly junior) scientists, the current situation presents both a warning and an opportunity for serious rethinking and reform. The blueprint the nation is following to finance science was devised almost 70 years ago and is now seriously out of date. It served science well in the early years, but hasn't done so for several decades.

The prospect of significant reform does not look promising. Even the relatively mild recent recommendations of NIH's Biomedical Workforce Working Group, chaired by Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, met with fierce and effective resistance from the interests that benefit from the current system. But if the present crisis were to galvanize action on proposals like those recently put forward by several expert groups, something good might actually come out of the reckless folly of sequestration.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.