July 17, 2013
How will the United States' fiscal struggles impact biophotonics development and the life sciences driven by these technologies?

"Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking." —Ernest Rutherford1

The U.S. research enterprise hasn't quite gotten to the stage Rutherford describes, but researchers—and, believe it or not, some members of Congress—think the edge of the cliff is coming up fast. In a recent interview with BioOptics World, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), a champion of research funding, noted that if the sequester stays in place, "it will be a fight for research funding and it will be a difficult one." As written, the sequester will impact budget caps this year as well as the next nine years.

Considering the climate, Lipinski said, agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) have done relatively well. "NSF is back down to 2009 levels because of the sequester, but so far no major impacts have been felt," he says. He notes that while currently funded projects will likely continue, albeit at maintenance funding levels, the big hit will come to large new projects seeking federal funds. One such project is NSF's National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The network is designed to gather and synthesize data on the impacts of climate change, land use, and invasive species as they relate to natural resources and biodiversity.

A bellwether to watch

In the coming months, the key congressional activity to watch will be reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The spending levels that the House and Senate develop for the reauthorization will "signal where the appropriations will go," Lipinski says. "Hopefully, we can get it done." The House Science subcommittees are working on the bill this summer. Lipinski would like to see the House at least maintain spending levels contained in the current act and the Senate to extend those levels. For fiscal year 2013, the act authorized $8.3 billion for NSF activities.

Washington's current partisan climate will present a challenge to those crafting the reauthorization. Back in 2007, bipartisan support helped America COMPETES become law. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House at the time, pushed for the bill's passage in the House, and then-President George W. Bush also encouraged its approval. However, when it came time for reauthorization in 2010, "things had changed," Lipinski says. The seeds of the now-entrenched partisan standoff were beginning to germinate.

Achieving reasonable research funding levels required heroic efforts by members of the Senate such as Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Frank Wolf (R-VA). "We do have people in leadership roles who understand the importance of funding research," Lipinski says. "Lamar helped to save the bill and get it done." In the House, Wolf has strongly supported NSF and "has been extremely helpful in advocating for funding."

He noted that NSF's Innovation Corps (I-Corps) is becoming a key component of the lab-to-market pipeline and he'd like the program expanded beyond NSF. I-Corps fosters entrepreneurship among NSF-funded scientists and engineers, with the goal of developing a national innovation ecosystem. "I'm interested in having other agencies, such as ARPA-E and NIH, participate in I-Corps. I think it can be done across agencies," he says.

One area of funding Lipinski is hopeful will not be hurt by the sequester is the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant program. "SBIR is not a major cost and it has a big return on investment," Lipinski says. "We can make a good argument that programs like SBIR help with the economy and job creation. If you can point to economic development, then it's easier to promote and protect those programs."

Even with SBIR funding, the current climate makes both researchers and companies reluctant to hire new personnel "because you don't want to have positions that aren't sustainable," says Adam Wax, founder and chairman of Oncoscope—a Durham, NC-based company developing a noninvasive optical biopsy platform to screen precancerous tissue. Wax, who is also a professor in the biomedical engineering department at Duke University, says that for small businesses, "it's very tough to raise money now. SBIRs were once a bridge over the valley of death, now nobody's on the other side." Risk adverse venture capitalists are holding onto their wallets.

Changing the public conversation

To build support for research funding beyond the science and engineering communities, Lipinski encourages the science and engineering communities to find a way to explain to the public that American prosperity and economic future hinge on research and technology development. "We have to talk about research in terms of keeping America at the forefront of technology innovation and maintaining or creating jobs. This is an argument people understand," he says.

Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, which advocates for health research funding, agrees that reaching the public using all forms of media is critical to building support for science. "We want the consequences of limited funding for research and innovation talked about in the same breath as longer lines at airports, defense layoff, and the closure of national parks," she says. She describes the sequester as a shadow over the entire innovation ecosystem. "This goes beyond uncertainty to depression," she says. "We don't want the sequester to be the new normal."

Woolley's comments are echoed by researchers around the country. "We are fairly deep down the cliff and now we're dropping further," says Vadim Backman, the Walter Dill Scott professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. He notes that—adjusting for inflation—real funding for research has been decreasing since 2001. Backman, whose research focuses on novel optical spectral and imaging techniques for noninvasive disease diagnoses, notes that only 1 in 20 research proposals is now funded by the National Cancer Institute. "There are a lot of potential lifesaving projects that will not get funded," he says.

If funding continues to decrease, Backman anticipates significant changes in the U.S. and global economies over the next 20 years. "The root of the system will be destroyed. We won't have the right people anymore," he says. Backman, who grew up in Russia, notes that the science enterprise in Russia was very well funded but when the economic crisis occurred, the easiest area to stop funding was science. "It's the easiest because you don't see the effects right away, but the scientific enterprise was essentially destroyed. It will take decades for Russia to recover."


1. "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5," National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, 7 (2010).

About the Author

Susan Reiss | Contributing Editor, BioOptics World

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