What do NIH cuts mean to you? A conversation with Filippo Mancia, PhD

Cuts to NIH funding are affecting labs across the country, resulting in fewer grant opportunities, smaller grants, and general uncertainty about the future of federal funding for research.  Filippo Mancia, PhD, assistant professor of physiology & cellular biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, discusses the impact of funding cuts on his work. 

1.  Please briefly describe your research.  How much do you depend on NIH support?

I am an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, in the fourth year of my tenure track. I study the structural biology of proteins in the cellular membrane, the water-impermeable barrier that surrounds each cell.

Every interaction between a cell and its surroundings takes place through this membrane, and proteins dissolved in the membrane often mediate the interactions. These proteins are critical to the cell’s functioning and are common drug targets.

Despite the critical role that membrane proteins play in cellular processes, as well as their relevance to human disease and its treatment, we know little about their structure. I am working to change that, and NIH funding is crucial to my lab.

Aside from a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a small grant from the Feldstein Medical Foundation—both of which expire in one year—my research is entirely dependent on federal funding.

2.  What are the current and possible future effects of NIH budget cuts on your lab and work?  For example, on staffing?  Facilities?  The pace or scale of your work?  The projects you choose to pursue?

Budget cuts could cripple my research and that of colleagues. Even though I have been lucky so far, having suffered relatively modest cuts, I am being very cautious, given the uncertain future.

Like many of my colleagues, I am sacrificing ambition and risk-taking in my research for certainty. I cannot hire as many people as I would like to, and I must plan my lab’s work more conservatively. This negatively affects our output, both now and in the future.

Scientific advances, including many of those that affect people’s lives, come about through risk-taking.  But when all of us are worried about our future, we have no choice but to proceed cautiously.

This goes totally against what I think science should be. Scientific research can have a tremendous impact, not just on the scientific community but on the entire population. Medical research benefits society as a whole; it deserves to be considered a strategic priority for the future of a country and to receive commensurate funding.

3.  What effect will cuts have on the research itself, as well as the broader field?  Will they slow down advances? Discourage new talent?   

A one-time 10 percent budget cut is manageable if there is the possibility of sustained funding growth in the following years.  The problem is that this is by no means the case, and it does not look as if funding opportunities are going to improve anytime soon.

By cutting the NIH budget, the government says that it does not value scientific research. This is shortsighted and absolutely catastrophic. NIH paylines have declined in recent years from a barely manageable 20 percent—meaning the top-scoring 20 percent of projects are funded—to, at times, below 10 percent.

When so many are competing for limited grants, luck and politics can play too large a role in who secures funding. This is demoralizing, and the situation is totally unsustainable.

From my personal perspective, if I were to receive an offer from an institution in a country in which scientific research is properly valued (Germany and Switzerland are two such examples), I would seriously consider it. The U.S. used to attract talent because researchers believed they would be nurtured and appreciated. In the current situation, this is no longer the case.

It is demoralizing that the political class we have selected to govern us does not understand the importance of funding scientific research for the future of the country. We should be seeing robust yearly increases in the NIH budget; instead we are left to discuss the impact of sequestration on our work. If that isn’t demoralizing, what is?

4. What would you like the public to know about the importance of NIH funding?  

Our quality of life and life expectancy have increased tremendously over the past decades. The major underlying reasons are scientific and technology advances, as well as education and infrastructure. If we want to continue on this path, if we want our children to live better lives, we need to invest in these key strategic areas. We cannot ask the private sector to fund basic or medical research, the results of which may take a generation to reach the population at large.

The scientific community relies on federal funding to support its research. Research is the essence of a modern country. If we want to defeat cancer, tackle neurodegenerative diseases, counter the increase in metabolic diseases in recent years (think diabetes), or simply enable our children to live healthy lives with new treatments for diseases, then a steady increase in federal funding for NIH should be considered an absolute priority.

The investment required for sustainable growth in scientific research is but a small fraction of the entire federal budget. It’s an investment we cannot afford to cut.