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Strapped Scientists Abandon Research and Students

The budget of the National Institutes of Health, the single biggest supplier of research dollars to universities, hasnít beat inflation in more than a decade. The National Science Foundation and other federal providers arenít doing a lot better.

On average, university researchers get into their 40s before securing their first independent grant. Full-time faculty research jobs are gradually being replaced by lower-paid contract work. Foreign competitors are matching or exceeding American science performance on a variety of important measures.

After several years of growing anxiety over whether those trends are temporary or enduring, thousands of university researchers responding to a Chronicle survey have helped answer a key question: For better or worse, the nationís scientists have embarked on an unequivocal downsizing of their capability to perform basic investigative research.

The survey was sent to 67,454 researchers holding current grants from the NIH or NSF. More than 11,000 responded. Among the key findings: Nearly half have already abandoned an area of investigation they considered central to their labís mission. And more than three-quarters have reduced their recruitment of graduate students and research fellows because of economic pressures.

The respondents included Adam N. Goldfarb, a professor of pathology at the University of Virginia who counts himselfófor nowóamong the lucky ones. He still has two active NIH grants, at least until the summer. But as he furiously writes new applications, hoping to continue his research into blood-cell development and diseases like anemia and leukemia, he peers out into a darkened hallway on his Charlottesville campus.

"We were packed to the gills about five years ago," Dr. Goldfarb said of his side of the floor, where six of seven research labs now sit vacant. "Itís really depressing," he said. "I go into work and thereís these black, empty spaces."

Depression, discouragement, and stress were common words in the comments that accompanied responses to the Chronicle survey. Researchers expressed concern both for themselves and for their counterparts, including students who they had hoped would become the nationís next generation of scientists.

Take those who have worked under Patrick S. Moore, a professor of microbiology and medical genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. Twenty years ago, Dr. Moore and his team discovered the viral cause of Kaposiís sarcoma, one of the most common cancers in AIDS patients. More recently, his lab found the viral cause for most Merkel-cell carcinomas, which kill several hundred Americans each year.

But now the three postdoctoral researchers who led the Merkel-cell discovery and then helped identify a promising possible cure are all unable to find permanent academic jobs, Dr. Moore said. Perhaps theyíll find work in a corporate setting, doing applied research, he said. But they "should be doing exploratory science to find the cause of the next cancer."...