Research funding outlook appears less certain

Immunotherapy drugs , such as these being administered at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, are among the areas of research needing funding. LAWRENCE KESTERSON / File Photograph
Immunotherapy drugs , such as these being administered at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, are among the areas of research needing funding. LAWRENCE KESTERSON / File Photograph
Posted: August 15, 2013

A five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to implement new ways of teaching at-risk families cardiopulmonary resuscitation has allowed University of Pennsylvania researcher Benjamin S. Abella to hire a staff of seven.

But the automatic federal budget cuts, the result of the 2011 standoff on raising the nation's debt ceiling, mean those jobs will be over when the grant ends in 2015, Abella said Tuesday at a Center City meeting with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.).

"Because of the sequester and because this was a fairly new program, it was one of the first on the chopping block," Abella said at the meeting, which was part of an effort by Casey to restore funding.

Abella said he was in the difficult position of telling his staff, "When this grant ends, I may have to let you go. I certainly will do my best to find things for you, but it's not entirely clear whether that will be the case."

During the gathering at the American Cancer Society/Cancer Action Network offices in Center City, officials from other research institutions told similar tales of young researchers being forced to leave university research labs.

"At these big institutions, if there's even a funding gap, there's no fallback position," said Richard C. Wender, chair of family and community medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.

Wender said he did not know specifically how many people had left Jefferson, where researchers received $49.7 million in NIH funding in fiscal 2012, the fourth-highest total in Philadelphia that year.

Philadelphia ranked fifth in the nation for NIH funding in fiscal 2012, trailing Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Seattle with $804 million. Penn accounted for $457.5 million of the local total, ranking fifth in the nation among all institutions.

NIH funding for Penn Medicine research specifically for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 has held up relatively well under the sequester, falling $4.2 million, or 0.7 percent, while NIH funding nationally was off $1.7 billion, or 5.5 percent, spokeswoman Susan Phillips said.

Casey called the outlook bleak for U.S. medical research.

"We're beginning to lose our edge to other parts of the world simply and completely because of funding," he said.


Contact Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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