- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

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.

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