BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Kuang He's future is tied to science; it's a future that's anything but certain.
The former graduate student in biochemistry has been the eye on the microscope, the hand injecting chemicals into a test tube filled with proteins. She has been a fact-finder in Carl Bauer's lab, analyzing how cells react to certain pressures, how they thrive or how they don't.
But after more than seven years of study at Indiana University, the native of Beijing has become the object of a different experiment, carried out miles away by legislators and bookkeepers in Washington, D.C.
In search of post-doctoral research — preferably looking at microbiome, organisms that live in the human body and could benefit people with autism — Kuang He couldn't find a school with the funding to pay her way. Money sustains science, and it's becoming more and more scarce. At IU, funding from the National Institutes of Health has fallen from about $220 million in 2010 to around $163 million in 2013.
A smaller pot of grants from the federal government has led to smaller classes of graduate students accepted into IU science programs. That means fewer students like Kuang He to assist in the lab. Fewer hands means less research. Failing to keep up with demands for research puts a lab at risk of losing future funding.
"It's a spiraling down effect," Bauer, the chairman of the department of molecular and cellular biochemistry at IU, told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1bwVl1h ).
Science research isn't on the verge of collapse, but Bauer and his colleagues extend their forecasts out 10 to 15 years and worry. They see the story of Kuang He and wonder what the future will hold for the young scientists who will one day be middle-aged men and women who had a dream but couldn't live it. They wonder what the world will do without the scientists who could have been, without the discoveries they would have made.
The changes are incremental, one or two fewer grad students coming into their departments from year to year, but the trend lines are all going down. Federal funding lags, and the private sector is still recovering from an economic downturn.
After more than 100 applications for positions in industry labs, Kuang He and her Ph.D. finally landed an interview with Exxon Mobil this weekend. The oil and gas company needs a hand to help explore biofuels; it wasn't her plan, but they can offer an opportunity.
It's one step in the right direction.
Ken Mackie is a scientist, but, at times, he feels more like an administrator.
His expertise is neuroscience, more specifically projects focused on analyzing the effects of cannabis and THC. He wants to know why things work the way they do, what makes the drug such a wonderful remedy for pain and nausea but also creates societal woe.
That's why he's a scientist.
But to be a scientist, to run a lab at IU, a "Tier 1" research institution, he needs money. He earns his keep by sitting at his computer, writing and rewriting an application for an NIH grant.
Mackie says he spends most of his time working on applications, working to get preliminary data for a project that may never be funded. He needs the data, though, the strongest evidence his theory might bear fruit, because only a small percentage of grant applications win a prize nowadays. The NIH recently reported a rare drop in applications, most likely because researchers are holding out to build their strongest case for funding.
But all of that work could be for naught. Any project submitted to the NIH is subject to a two-strike rule. If it's rejected twice, it won't be funded. Ever.
A seasoned grant writer, Mackie has a success rate of about 20 to 30 percent on applications. Thirty percent doesn't make Mackie or his teams of graduate students untouchable, though. Not when scientists have to score in the 90th percentile with NIH and National Science Foundation committees to be assured a grant.
David Giedroc, a chemist who has two labs up and running at IU, had an application for a third denied by the NIH. His project would have focused on Middle East respiratory syndrome, and he had a team of grad students prepared to work on it. When funding fell through — his project landed in the 87th percentile, but not good enough under today's standards — his graduate students had to "scramble."
"We aren't able to do science, but we are also not training the next generation of scientists," Giedroc said. "It's basically a double whammy."
With a dreary outlook for funding, the university can't offer graduate positions for work that may not exist when students arrive. So, incoming classes have fluctuated, drastically in some cases, depending on the department. The graduate numbers in molecular biology dropped from a yearly range of about 15 to 17 students to a new norm of 12. Chemistry reduced from 55 in 2012 to 22 the following year, though the number will increase in 2014. Enrollment of graduate students in physics might decrease a slot or two next year.
In some cases, Giedroc said departments are able to find work for graduate students as associate instructors rather than solely depending on research dollars. As much as possible, science departments are trying to increase teaching opportunities for graduate students — from one or two semesters to three or four or more — so the university can pick up the cost where grants will not. But teaching positions can only be created if there are classes to teach.
Kuang He said she taught a handful of semesters during her time in Bloomington, including 100-level courses in chemistry and biochemistry. The more time graduate students spend teaching, however, the less time they spend in the lab, and the more time they spend in school.
And with the economy as it is, graduate students don't necessarily want to leave. Kuang He found most industry labs aren't hiring "fresh" Ph.D. students. Companies want someone with at least a few years' experience in the private sector, experience she has not had the opportunity to earn.
"It's hard to fill that gap," Kuang He said.
Think back on the winners of the Nobel Prize, Bauer says. They have won acclaim, to a large extent, for their research into basic science.
Not "basic" as in easy. It takes a genius, or geniuses, to study G-protein-coupled receptors or develop multiscale models for complex chemical systems. But award-winning science is often focused on the fundamentals, the concepts that are being discovered, overturned and rediscovered. It's a desire to understand how the many elements of the universe relate to one another.
Basic science, however, is being funded less and less. More and more, grants are being awarded to projects that are "translational," meaning a scientists work can be directly developed for commercial purposes. Scientists are tasked with creating therapies or finding cures. Their aim is often times a drug.
One of Bauer's colleagues has started his own company, hoping to raise venture capital for research on hepatitis D. Bauer himself has shifted his research on bacteria, concentrating on how it interacts with plant roots and affects biomass. One day, he said, this research could produce a means for increasing crop yields on farms.
On the other hand, there are concerns about what's lost when basic science isn't the focus, especially on the Bloomington campus, which has always been geared more toward basic research, as opposed to the Indianapolis campus and the IU School of Medicine, with its more translational slant. Scientists in Bloomington are looking to change their mindset, but Bauer compares the momentum of research to a "big boat."
Once research starts in one direction, with projects that run for years, it takes a long while to turn the ship around.
As priorities shift, young scientists have to ask themselves what environment they want — the academic arena, where grants are never guaranteed, or the private sector, in labs subject only to the ambition of their investors. Kuang He has chosen industry, and she doesn't see herself coming back to academia.
Though her native China has been increasing its spending on science while America is pulling back, Kuang He doesn't want to return home. She still believes America has the best opportunities, the greatest resources and the top scientists in the world.
Scientists, at the end of the day, are optimists. They have to believe, despite the odds their research will fail, despite operating on the fringes of the unknown, that the answers are close by.
If Kuang He regrets anything about her experience at IU, it was the long hours doing her experiments in isolation, working toward finding answers but not standing up at a presentation and learning how to sell her science.
Maybe scientists just need to sell themselves better, she thinks. Maybe, she says, legislators don't understand what cuts to research will mean to them. She takes the long view and hopes there is a future for her.
Her elders at IU hope for the same.
"When you are working on the fringes of knowledge, things that seem abundantly clear, things we thought we knew, are constantly being overturned," Mackie said. "The level of funding right now is eroding what will be available to the field in 10 or 15 years.
"It's a short-sighted approach, and, one day, it could really turn around and bite the U.S."
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com