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Funding cuts worry Fred Hutch researchers

May 3, 2013

Dr. Jim Olson recently received two emails—within five minutes of each other—announcing that two of his grants would receive less than half the federal funding that he was originally promised. It was an ominous sign of how new government spending cuts—called sequestration—could jeopardize the next generation of lifesaving breakthroughs.

“My team made a discovery that improved outcomes for kids with brain tumors from 55 percent to 70 percent,” he said. “Without federal funding, research like this may never see the light of day.”

Olson’s comments came during a recent roundtable discussion with Sen. Patty Murray, who visited Fred Hutch’s campus to get a firsthand view of sequestration’s potential impact. Along with more than a half-dozen researchers from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, UW Medicine and the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute, Olson painted a bleak picture.

The two recent cuts were to grants Olson was promised by the National Cancer Institute. These funding reductions weren’t directly tied to sequestration but Olson believes they reflect a new caution among grant makers adapting to the changing fiscal landscape.

Dr. Jim Olson

Dr. Jim Olson

In an ironic twist, these budget cuts can be self-defeating by imperiling projects that could save the government money. For instance, Olson’s team is developing federally-funded technology that determines which cancer treatments will be effective in particular patients.

At a time when the government is trying to reduce health care costs, “the last thing you want to do is spend $100,000 giving someone medicine that doesn’t have a chance of helping them,” Olson said.

Another key worry: sequestration might draw private dollars away from innovative new projects. Private philanthropy traditionally provides seed money that lets researchers test cutting-edge ideas and generate the results they need to apply for large federal grants.

“I’m afraid those philanthropic donations will be used to backfill projects where NIH funding is pulled out,” Olson said. “That could cost us a generation of new science.”

Sequestration could also translate into fewer jobs. Fred Hutch has already indicated that sequestration will trigger layoffs, and Olson sees a similar impact in his lab and at two companies he founded to improve cancer treatment.

These companies, Presage Biosciences and Blaze Bioscience, receive significant federal funding and have created 33 jobs in the past three years. Olson said they could create up to a thousand more. But the two recent grant cuts cost him money he had planned to spend on six new salaries. He also recently had to let his lab’s most senior researcher leave for another job after 13 years.

“I couldn’t match the offer they got without knowing what my own funding was going to be,” Olson said.

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