Plant Science Already Feeling Sequester’s Pain

The sweeping cuts in federal spending known as the sequester are already taking a toll on scientific research. Jennifer Fletcher, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley stationed at the USDA-funded Plant Gene Expression Center, faces the sudden challenge of slashing direct research costs by 40 percent.

“I’m paying part of a lab assistant’s salary…  and already as a result of the cuts we’ve had to eliminate that position.” Now Fletcher has less money to spend on supplies and won’t be able to hire new research assistants, post-docs, or support new graduate students for the foreseeable future. When asked how this will affect her lab’s work on stem cells in plant development, Fletcher replied, “by overall slowing the progress of the research, and narrowing the focus.”

Stories like Fletcher’s are becoming common now that the cuts are taking effect in ways that were hard to imagine only weeks ago. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which funds Fletcher’s lab, protected professors’ salaries and indirect research costs like facilities, but left direct research costs, such as personnel and supplies, to take the hit. This explains how agency-wide spending reductions of a seemingly modest 5 percent, pinched actual research by 40 percent.

Most academic plant scientists are feeling the sequester through dimmer prospects for funding by competitive granting agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NSF announced it will trim spending by 5 percent by reducing the number of new grants it awards by approximately 1,000, or about 10 percent. To spare staff and existing obligations, the NSF is leaving young researchers and new projects to bear the brunt of the cuts.

Many fear the sudden funding drought will turn a cohort of young scientists away from research. “For those scientists who are near the threshold of getting funded, this isn’t just some belt tightening. It will completely alter their career trajectory,” explains Timothy Nelson, a plant biology professor at Yale University. “The impact of this seemingly small squeeze can be huge.”

According to recent estimates, the NIH is cutting $1.56 billion from its 2013 budget. While it remains to be seen exactly where the axe will fall, preliminary calculations predict it will issue somewhere between 600 to 2,700 fewer grants. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates the NIH’s R&D budget under sequestration will return to 2002 levels through 2021.

The outlook for basic plant research is bleak, but applied plant research faces even more difficult times. The ARS, which is the USDA’s internal research arm, and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which administers the USDA’s external funding, support most of the applied plant science research in the US. According to the AAAS, the sequester is sending USDA R&D funding back to 1998 levels.

Farmers depend on improved crop varieties developed through UDSA-funded plant breeding work. Since climatic conditions, disease pressure, and quality issues are ever-evolving, cuts to breeding programs put future harvests at risk. “Developing a new variety of wheat typically takes about ten years. The danger of these cuts is that we won’t feel their true effect until many years down the road, at which point it will be too late,” warns Melissa Kessler, Director of Communications for the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Like the proverbial eating the seed corn, today’s slimmer budget comes with a price. Studies show that public spending in agricultural research is a matter of common sense. According to a Council for Agricultural Science and Technology report, average estimated rates of return on investment are near 50%, with an overall benefit-cost ratio of 32 to 1.

When congress will replace sequestration with a more reasonable deficit reduction strategy is still anyone’s guess. The president’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget, however, offers a glimmer of hope. The plan seeks an additional 3.2 percent in funding for the NSF and a 28.7 percent boost to AFRI. Will the president’s intentions bear any resemblance to what comes to pass? Recent history instructs us to be cautious.

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Patrick recently earned his PhD and is now finishing his research on the plant immune system at Yale University. During his time at Yale, Patrick co-organized the seminar series "Biotechnology in Agriculture" to foster discussion on plant genetic engineering. Prior to Yale, Patrick worked for Genius GmbH in Germany, writing EU-funded websites aimed at informing the public about plant biotech and clarifying its regulation by the EU.