Federal budget cuts affect scientific research

Recent budget cuts have had a severe impact on scientific research conducted at Mason. The National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases and the Department of Molecular and Microbiology failed to receive a grant from the National Institute of Health in May because of the NIH’s tight budget.

The center, which studies biodefense-related pathogens in order to help combat bioterrorism and researches infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, had received a continuous NIH grant of over $1 million for the past four years. This year, however, the grant was not renewed. As a result, the center now faces serious financial trouble that has made it difficult to conduct research.

One of the chief scientists at the center, Dr. Yuntao Wu runs a laboratory located in Discovery Hall on Mason’s Prince William Campus in Manassas. His team focuses on studying HIV infection of CD4 T cells, a type of white blood cells that regulate the immune system and are killed by the HIV virus. Due to a lack of available funding, Wu had to lay off a technician who had worked at the lab for seven years. The budget cuts also made it difficult for him to conduct research, as they are unable to get their results out of the lab.

“Some of the projects have to be stopped. We lost employees, so the research really closed down,” Wu said. “A technician lost a job because of the budget cut…She had many years of expertise, so we lost expertise in this research.”

Wu added that he now must spend hours in his office writing appeals for new grants, a tiring process that takes away from the time and energy he should be putting toward the lab.

This loss of funding affects more than just faculty and professors. It slows student research, and because they only have about $3,000 to spend each month, many student experiments have been postponed. The center can no longer afford to pay students a salary for their work. They now work in the labs as unpaid volunteers.

Wu’s lab alone currently has five Ph.D. graduate students and four master students, all of who depend on constant NIH funding for their training and research. They do not have as much experience in the field of AIDS research as the technician who was fired, putting their research in jeopardy.

To offset these budget cuts, the center has turned to other sources of funding.

While the majority of the institution’s money comes from NIH grants, it also receives some small grants from drug companies. Wu and others are now looking more into private companies and other sources of fundraising for research.

The recent government shutdown has only made getting funding even more challenging as the NIH has been unable to increase its budget.

If the NIH budget does not increase, the entire biomedical community will be affected. According to Wu, many of his colleagues have already been forced to shut down their labs.

Mason is not the only institution in the academic science community that has been hurt by these budget cuts. Both public and private universities have been affected to various degrees. Some institutions have not been hit as hard because they are able to work together when applying for grants. However, Mason lacks the mass scientific personnel needed to make that kind of coordinated effort.

In 2008, Wu’s research team published a groundbreaking study describing how HIV uses a signaling system to trick the CD4 T cells into breaking their cytoskeleton barrier, which normally blocks viruses from invading the cells, for the virus. In the near future, they hope to be able to provide new drugs and ways of treating HIV/AIDS and might even find a cure. The budget cuts, however, have stalled possible progress.

According to Wu, when they get funding again, they will be allowed to continue their research. His lab will be able to push its many discoveries further, perhaps even to clinical trials.

“You will see the benefits for patients very soon,” Wu said.

If or when it receives a new grant, his lab would also like to invite the technician who was let go to return, because she has so much expertise in the field. She has started to look and interview for new jobs, though, and might have a new position by the time new funds come in.

In the meantime, the center is mainly relying on help from Mason’s College of Science, which has offered temporary loans to keep labs like Wu’s functioning.

Wu has also gotten help from friends and colleagues who have aided his research in the past. An Internet fund that they started on his behalf has raised around $20,000 for his lab.

In addition to his work with the lab, Wu teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes at Mason. This semester, he is teaching a course on HIV/AIDS and society and another one on virology and immunology.

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