Fox Chase research threatened by sequestration

Posted: April 20, 2013

Jonathan Chernoff, chief scientific officer for Fox Chase Cancer Center, says the "slow-motion train wreck" that is sequestration is starting to damage the research laboratories at his institution.

He has had to tell the leaders of five or six "productive" labs that they will have to drop employees when the new fiscal year starts in July. At least six people, most likely young scientists getting postdoctoral training, will lose their jobs.

That's not a huge number, but Chernoff worries that this kind of instability will lead bright young people to take other work. He says it will be hard for the Fox Chase employees who lose their jobs to find other jobs. "We're driving a bunch of young people out of science," he said.

An additional "20 or so" support staff will also lose their jobs.

Chernoff said his own lab, which studies how cancer cells divide, was spared because one of his fellows graduated and was not replaced. Among the labs affected is one run by Dietmar Kappes, whom Chernoff called "one of the world's experts" in immunology. "He's had to contract his lab at what I consider the height of his career."

Earlier this month, he and other researchers in the region protested the cuts, which likely will be about 5 percent in National Institutes of Health grants, along with the American Association for Cancer Research. He said Fox Chase expected to lose about $3 million of its annual $40 million in grants.

Postdoctoral fellows work on one-year contracts, Chernoff said, and until recently could rely on three to four years of work. Depending on experience, they make in the "high 30s" to $50,000 a year.

Chernoff said the unusual ideas that have the greatest risk of failure and game-changing success likely would be cut: "When money is short, it's the speculative projects that go first."

Fox Chase, which is now part of the Temple University Health System, also faces "other pressures" that affect the research budget. "My ability to fill in gaps," he said, "is less robust than it used to be."

Thomas Jefferson University and the University of Pennsylvania Health System said they have not yet had to require layoffs in specific labs. A Penn spokeswoman said its researchers were trying to reduce costs and seek new grants. "We are as worried as our colleagues," said Susan Phillips, "but Penn Medicine, given its high success rate in grants, is likely more able to weather this than others."

Phil Johnson, a virologist who is chief scientific officer for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said his hospital expected about $10 million in research cuts, but didn't know yet where they would fall. "Absolutely nobody," he said, "knows how this is going to affect their grant portfolio."

He said that, while the budgetary uncertainty was causing "mild chaos and unrest . . . the real problem is that Congress has lost sight of the value of biomedical research in this country."


Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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