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Without basic science, there’s no breakthrough science: A Fred Hutch researcher worries about federal funding cuts

May 22, 2013

Editor’s note: Most of the talk about NIH funding cuts has focused on how they affect clinical research on innovative new treatments. But the sequester could also have a big impact on the basic scientific research that’s the foundation beneath clinical work. Science writer Justin Matlick caught up with Dr. Jonathan Cooper, director of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division, to learn more about what the current funding climate means for this key area.

Why is basic scientific research important?

There’s a big emphasis on research that translates discoveries into therapies, but that process starts with having something to translate. That’s where basic science comes in.

Take the early studies of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Basic scientists discovered something called the Philadelphia chromosome, which was associated with CML. Then basic scientists found out that the Philadelphia chromosome was the result of two chromosomes coming together to make an unusual form of a gene called ABL. ABL had already been studied for quite a while, so we knew how it worked and what it did. That made it crystal clear that, to treat people with CML, we needed to inhibit ABL activity.

Dr. Jonathan Cooper

Dr. Jonathan Cooper

Those inhibitors are now the first-line treatment for people with CML. That never could have happened without basic science.

How important is the NIH to Fred Hutch’s basic science research?

We are extremely reliant on NIH.  The individual labs in the Basic Sciences Division are typically small labs that require two NIH grants to pay for salaries, facilities and supplies. If you lose a grant or a grant is cut, it’s an enormous hit.

There have been two impacts from the sequester so far. One is that far fewer grants are being funded. The second is that the grants you do get often see across-the-board cuts.

I have personally experienced this. I have had two lines of research going on for the past 10 years or so. Now I only have funding for one of those projects and my lab is shrinking. I used to have seven people and that’s coming down to five.

It makes it hard to have the critical mass you need to keep your work moving forward. And many of us are cutting our own salaries because we can’t afford to pay them out of the smaller grants.

If the cuts stay in place or NIH funding remains flat, what will the basic science landscape look like in five or ten years? 

Here at Fred Hutch, I think most of the established, midlevel researchers will continue to have decent funding success. But the NIH situation could have a big impact on our ability to recruit top young scientists.

When we try to attract junior faculty, they might worry about whether they want to join a place where internal, interim funding might become harder to get. There are some other things that make the Center attractive—scientists can focus on research and don’t have to teach, and there’s the great atmosphere and camaraderie—but I suspect it’s going to be more difficult to recruit top-level people. And that’s concerning because the most important thing for this Division is to build a strong group of junior people.

Overall, I think there’s been a major disillusionment among graduate students and post-docs about their prospects of ever getting an academic job or maybe of even ever wanting one.

Do you worry that funding cuts will reduce the pipeline of basic science discoveries?

Not really. This isn’t the end of the world by any means. NIH has gone through dips before. This is a more major dip than any of us remember. But we hope that Congress will come to its senses and develop a more reasonable budget.

Visit our sequestration page for the latest news on how federal budget cuts impact Fred Hutch and cancer research nationwide.

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