Yale Labs Brace For Cuts

Gwyneth K. Shaw PhotosStephen Strittmatter’s lab is stocked with the latest medical equipment and a hive of graduate students working to help people with Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

The federal budget ax looming over hundreds of programs nationwide is also casting a shadow here. A proposed $1.6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget could curtail—or stop altogether—cutting-edge work at Yale medical school labs like Strittmatter’s and in similar labs across the country.

“A 2 percent cut in NIH funding may decrease innovation by 50 percent,” Strittmatter, a professor of neurology and neurobiology, said Monday during a visit with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro aimed at spotlighting Yale medical research, as well as the potential consequences of the cuts.

“There’s not a 1-to-1 correlation,” he said.

Strittmatter’s younger colleagues—and graduate students who are training in their labs—are also worried about money. Daniel Colon-Ramos, an assistant professor at the medical school, is working on neural connectivity. His grant funding, which came from special NIH money tucked into the stimulus package, runs out in June.

“That research will just stop” if the next grant doesn’t come through, Colon-Ramos said.

Grants fund most of the salaries of academic researchers, as well as their labs. That includes students training with them, some of whom are funded by the NIH. Nearly a dozen student slots at Yale could be in jeopardy.

The NIH money is awarded competitively, with peer review of applications, not by university, so it’s impossible to know exactly what the impact would be for any individual researcher or institution.

“This work is at real risk,” added Tony Koleske, an associate professor in Yale’s molecular biophysics and biochemistry department. He’s trying to home in on a “switch” that could stop breast cancer cells from migrating, and said he’d been working on a revision of his latest grant proposal just before the DeLauro meet-and-greet.

“There just isn’t enough money to go around,” he said.

DeLauro, a Democrat whose district includes the New Haven area, pledged to “fight like hell” for NIH funding. After several years of increasing funding for the agency—a bipartisan goal—the budget passed last month in the Republican-led House offers research cuts that are “misguided,” she said.

The current fight is over funding for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. If the NIH loses all $1.6 billion, DeLauro said, the agency will approve about 3,000 fewer grants than it did in the previous year. Roughly 100 clinical trails would be curtailed, or simply halted, she said.

“What a loss for the country. What a loss for the world,” said DeLauro, who noted that she survived ovarian cancer a quarter-century ago, thanks to the biomedical research of that era. “It will negatively affect the health of every American.”

Republicans are pushing for tough across-the-board cuts—the House bill slashes more than $60 billion—to reduce the budget deficit and slim down government. They say a smaller government and lower taxes will foment economic growth. Democrats like DeLauro say the GOP plan would hurt social services and other essential government programs at a time when they’re most needed, and add to the unemployment rolls to boot.

“The public has got to understand what cuts to the NIH mean,” DeLauro said.

After a week-long campaign in which lawmakers from both parties made their pitch about the budget to constituents, Congress returned to session Monday. The House and Senate are expected to agree on a temporary budget that will briefly avert a government shutdown. DeLauro said she needs to look at what the reprieve legislation does to the NIH and other health-related programs.

There’s a history of innovation, led by the U.S., that’s also at stake in this debate, Colon-Ramos said. Those advances in biomedical research have come because of government support, he said.

“The consequences of stopping that commitment will be catastrophic,” Colon-Ramos said.

Jacqueline Heiss (pictured, with DeLauro) works in Strittmatter’s lab looking at the tiny spines found on neurons in the brain for clues to helping Alzheimer’s patients. When DeLauro stopped by her corner of the room, she showed the congresswoman images of how those spines retract when treated with amyloid beta, a key element of the plaques found in the brains of those who have Alzheimer’s.

Heiss told DeLauro she’s looking for the reason why this happens, and what it means for finding a cure.

“Find it! Find it!” DeLauro exclaimed. “We’re counting on you.”

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posted by: Henry Lowendorf on March 1, 2011  8:24am

This country cannot afford to carry out important medical research, provide the necessities of life and at the same time support wars of occupation and funnel our wealth to the extreme rich.

End the wars, tax the rich, rebuild America.

posted by: V on March 1, 2011  9:09am

The cuts have to come from EVERYwhere, not just “somewhere”. 

All the low-hanging fruit in medicine has been picked (vaccines, nutrition, acute disease); further advances offer only incremental improvement in health at great expense.

I also cringe when I hear a purported man of science state that a 2% cut will lead to a 50% drop in innovation.  WTH?  Would a 2% increase lead to a 50% increase in innovation?  Or does this math only kick in when your gravy train is being threatened?

posted by: Maybe It's Time on March 1, 2011  9:20am

Maybe it’s time that DeLauro, and the rest of the Libs, realize the more they take from the wealthy (you know those who earned their own money) the less the wealthy will be able to help out programs such as this.

Not only that, but maybe it is time for Yale to dig into their endowments and come up with money to pay for their teachers, labs, etc. and let the funds (for research) actually go towards the research.

posted by: lance on March 1, 2011  9:22am

henry it isn’t the governments job to provide the necessities of life it is the individuals job to earn them.  and i have news for you, giving   government money to universities with huge cash assets and well paid professors is IS funneling money to the rich.  take midwest professor Gary Hunninghake for example.  the guy makes 360k a YEAR!  0bama gave this dude alone a one million dollar gift to tinker with.  to see what he is up to now, do a web news search.  LOL. 

If you go to the propublica.org website stimulus tracker you will see the absdurd amount of money yale got FOR FREE in the stimulus.  I say starts defunding them completely and let these liberal elitists get a dose of reality.

posted by: Henry Lowendorf on March 1, 2011  2:02pm

The “country” cannot afford the necessities of life when the super wealthy suck up all our savings with their schemes, and none of them go to jail for their crimes.

The “country” cannot afford the necessities of life when we spend over a trillion taxpayer dollars a year making the armaments industry (the military industrial complex) super wealthy; and fighting wars to make the super wealthy oil companies even wealthier. Please let your Congressional Reps know that you don’t want your tax dollars spent on useless hardware and useless wars. 

Yes research is expensive and hard work. Education is expensive and hard work.

When members of your family get cancer treatment, thank the researchers for coming up with it. When they are successfully treated for heart conditions, broken bones, ulcers, infectious diseases, thank the researchers for coming up with the treatment, thank the providers for providing it, thank the companies that produce relevant materials for producing them, thank the teachers for educating those involved in all the above, thank the fire and OSHA inspectors for ensuring all work in safe workplaces. Civilized society is expensive. Of course many are happy to pay their fair burden. 

Thank the taxpayers who authorized the relevant spending so that society could progress from snake oil to medicines that actually work.

The voters presumably tell the government what they want it to do and in a democracy it does those things. In poll after poll, the voters want the wars ended. But the government doesn’t end them. The voters want taxes to be fair. But taxes are not fair.

Science and medicine don’t have all the answers. But anti-science has no answers.

When the name calling begins (“liberal elitists”) you can be sure that the name callers have run out of logic and arguments.

posted by: Mr Ray on March 1, 2011  3:50pm

I guess even Yale has to sometimes join the real world. Maybe those profs could take a pay cut, or maybe make their own way to work, instead of being ferried by Yale buses and Yale security cars.

posted by: anon on March 1, 2011  7:31pm

Mr Ray—you are correct to suggest that there would be much more sympathy, and support for, Yale’s cause if the organization promoted social equity as one of their core missions. 

The extensive private security transport fleet, which costs more than some Middle Eastern dictatorships, proves that they have a long way to go.  Rather than funding a fleet of speeding GPS-enabled SUVs for its iPhone-connected students, Yale instead should give students and faculty free passes on CT Transit and lobby for better routes. 

Another example is the University President’s enormous salary - a salary that, based on comparisons to other universities, wouldn’t be nearly so high if it weren’t for the taxpayer-funded research dollars that make up a large proportion of the University’s operating budget. 

Social equity means promoting equal opportunities for all citizens, not hoarding taxpayer funds and using them (in part) to undermine our public bus systems.

It’s great that Yale contributes so much to New Haven (and they do a much better job of keeping their employees living in and contributing to the city than, say, the City of New Haven does), but if they want community support in times like these they need at least pretend to treat normal residents as they would wish to be treated themselves.

Also, Henry is correct.  We can not continue to support any schools, health care or economic innovation (which means we won’t be able to compete with other nations) as long as we continue to funnel money upwards to the superrich (see http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph ).  Policy-wise, stopping the unprecedented sucking of poor and middle class wealth into the pockets of the superrich would be a very easy fix, if any of our members of Congress were brave enough to stand up to the financial companies, Koch brothers and other corporate executives.

We also can’t even begin to think about our nation’s future prospects while the majority of our growing foreign trade deficit is used to purchase foreign oil to subsidize an inefficient transportation system, based on private automobiles that most citizens can’t even afford to drive anymore. 

Our oil dependency is a problem of social inequality as well, because the superrich are not impacted by it.  Folks like Blumenthal or Dr. Reggie Mayo can take their taxpayer-financed SUVs and criss-cross the state on highways (which the gas tax only covers about 10% of the cost of).  Even though President Obama has proposed huge increases in funding for mass transit and sustainable communities, the Party of the Superrich (GOP) and even many Democrats want to cut almost all of it.

Until we begin to address these two issues, there’s no use even discussing issues such as public sector pensions or better schools.  We might as well cut all of them now, because we have no chance of funding any of them for more than another couple of years.  The US’s checkbook has a balance of negative $44 trillion, and getting worse by the second.

As long as trillions of dollars continue to get sucked out of the U.S. economy to pay for oil, and sucked out of the pockets of low-income families to create ballooning corporate profits, highways for the superrich, and second homes, the cuts to services, education and innovation that we see now are just the beginning of something much more drastic.  Yale can take a small step to fix the problem by helping us fix CT Transit.

posted by: A medical researcher on March 1, 2011  11:52pm

Let me provide a little personal perspective on this story.  I am a faculty member at the medical school and run a medium sized lab of about 7-9 people.  I also see patients, teach med students, medical residents,  fellows and PhD post-doctoral fellows, and do some medical education administrative work.  Given the realities of medical research funding, I must raise enough money to employ the people in my lab, pay for research expenses (we spend upwards of 50-60K a year on housing mouse colonies alone) and pay for 85-95% of my own salary.  Basically, I run a small business within the structure of the University and if I can’t raise the money, it all goes away.  If I were to loose my funding, the University might support me for awhile, but my lab would essentially shut down.  I don’t state this to complain, just to educate you on the ground rules under which I and most of my colleagues operate. 

So, as you can imagine, the prospect of the House of Representatives suddenly trying to cut almost 5% of the NIH budget for this current fiscal year is stressful.  Especially since they are trying to cut discretionary spending even more.  The NIH budget has already been under stress for at least 5 years now.  This has translated into an ever decreasing likelihood of having any specific proposal funded (from around 20-25% 10 years ago for the standard R01 grants to hovering around 10% currently) and many branches of the NIH have cut ongoing project budgets by 10-15% (from originally funded levels) across the board for the last couple of years.  I have faced the prospect of cutting my own salary to save jobs in my lab over the last several years and may need to do it in the coming year or two.  I know colleagues who have already done his to make up for budget shortfalls.  The current cuts would come on top of this already tight situation. 

So, why do I belabor this sob story.  Mostly because the comments do not suggest that the readers understand the economics of how medical research is funded or how economically devastating a big pullback in federal support of the NIH would be for the New Haven area.  Somewhere around 60% of Yale’s workforce is employed at the medical school.  Since the med school only has 400 students, most of these employees are involved in the research and clinical care part of our mission.  These are good union jobs and high-paying technical and professional jobs, all with great benefits.  If the NIH budget takes a serious hit over the next few years, a lot of those jobs will go away-period.  That means a lot of well payed people will move out of the area and the businesses they frequent will suffer as will the housing market.  So, I hope you can start to see the economic ripples.  In addition, we will shed faculty and there will be fewer start-ups and Mr Winstanley (?sp) may look for greener pastures.  Finally, we benefit from trainees from all over the world who come to New Haven to work at the medical school and live in our city and surrounding area.  If the NIH starts to go away, they will go to another country to train and our local area becomes suddenly less cosmopolitan and a less interesting place to work.

Anyway, I have rambled on enough.  I will not even touch upon the benefits to humanity issues - or whether across the board cuts in discretionary spending is an effective way to cut the federal deficit.  I hope that I have made a strong enough case on purely self-interested economic terms to convince anyone that really cares about a vibrant New Haven that this a big deal.  Rosa DeLauro gets it and I thank her for caring.  I would urge all of you to care and get all of our politicians mobilized to fight for the NIH.  Like it or not, New Haven is now a med-Ed economy and this will hurt us all if it continues as scripted by the House republicans.

posted by: Yale Receives on March 2, 2011  10:03am

Yale receives millions of dollars, each year. They received $79 million more dollars in the Stimulus bill. Yale has billions in endowments.

Meanwhile the country is going broke. The people have less buying power and are facing increased taxes, at all levels.

It is time for Yale to start dipping into their own money to fund research and do more fundraising. I know, the Clintons went there, maybe Yale can contact them and ask them for some of their money to help out the school.

posted by: lance on March 2, 2011  7:25pm

i’d like to see the salaries of “A medical researcher” and the rest of the staff at these labs, and those professors pictured. then we’ll talk.

posted by: Missing the issue... on March 2, 2011  11:19pm

The asst profs make 90-100K and the graduate students make ~25K.  The more senior profs can make 150 or more.  And all of them would make a heck of lot more in industry. So I am sure you would say that they should go there then, right?  The problem is that the “free market” component of this- pharma drug development- is totally dependent on the basic science that these people conduct day and night.  Without it, there would be no “drug targets” for the companies to work on.  So while no one is starving here, failure to support of this research would have far-reaching consequences for both health and the economy.

posted by: Andy on March 3, 2011  11:47am


Academic biomedical research labs are staffed by graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and technicians. Any given professor will oversee 5-20 of these staff in his or her lab (and pay their salaries via grant money). As one poster already mentioned, graduate students make somewhere on the order of 25K a year. Post-doctoral researchers (who hold PhDs) start off making roughly 36K, and this can approach 50K after several years of experience. The compensation rates of grad students and post-docs are both set by the NIH, and academic institutions that receive NIH funding must adhere to these guidelines. In general, these rates are much less than those in the biotech or pharmaceutical industry (assuming comparable experience).

One point that sort of gets lost in this article is that this funding problem isn’t unique to Yale, and it’s actually a much more serious problem at other institutions. Essentially any university that conducts basic science research in biology is going to be affected by cuts to NIH funding. Yale theoretically has the ability to dip into its own money to cover shortfalls and make sure that grad student stipends get paid. At less wealthy institutions funding cuts could lead to scientific trainees being forced to leave, and this sort of situation could be disastrous for the next generation of scientific leaders in the country.

posted by: lance on March 3, 2011  7:45pm

Thanks for taking the time to answer! Based upon the modest salary numbers given, I would love to see a line by line explanation as to how the rest of the 79 million taxpayer handout to Yale was spent.  Are they paying huge rent for space (and if so to whom because I’d be anxious to look at the property owners campaign contribution history)?  Are the materials used for research THAT expensive?  Also, if they invent or discover some breakthrough medicine as a result of the government financing shouldn’t the feds own a portion of the patent?  I think that if the stimulus was really meant to put people to work it should have been spent elsewhere. Anyone smart enough to do that kind of work could certainly land a job doing something without anybody’s help.  the stimulus should have been reserved for the benefit for the average joe or jill rather than brilliant scientists, professors, and grad students that could easily find work without any help.  Not to mention the world is already overpopulated, do we really want to advance medicine to the point where everybody is cured of everything and we all live to age 150?