University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic feeling federal budget cuts

Published 2:52 pm Saturday, August 31, 2013

ST. PAUL — Some scientists at two of Minnesota’s top research institutions say they’re spending more time chasing money than working in their labs as they try to make up for federal funding cuts.

The University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic are among institutions nationwide dealing with $1.7 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget. The trims are due to Congress’ failure to agree on a budget deal to avoid automatic cuts.

For people like Gary Balas, a university professor of aeronautical engineering, it’s meant cancellation of a three-year, $450,000 contract with the Air Force that helped fund his research on flight control systems. For the university’s Stem Cell Institute, it means a 40 percent cut over six months.

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The university so far has made up some of the gaps in funding. But instead of spending his time in the wind tunnel or testing flight control software, Balas has had to shift his priorities.

“You end up spending much more of your time chasing money and less time doing the research,” he said.

At the Stem Cell Institute, Dr. John Wagner is director of the university’s blood and marrow transplantation program. He’ll do with $300,000 less to fund his work on creating novel new cell therapies to treat illnesses including leukemia, heart disease and diabetes.

“What’s the impact?” Wagner asked. “Well, we’ve actually had to remove people or they’re working but not getting paid. We’ve had to cut the projects we’re working on.”

The federal budget cuts also hit the research budget of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where Dr. Ronald Peterson studies aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

One of Peterson’s projects is a large study of residents of the surrounding Olmsted County as they age. Typically, his researchers have met with participants every year, but that is no longer happening.

“You know it’s not death for the study, but we’re lacking some precise time points now,” said Peterson, director of Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “So over the course of say, three or four years, instead of seeing people three or four times, we may see them twice.”

Officials at the Mayo Clinic, which receives about $240 million a year from the National Institutes of Health, expect see that figure drop by as much as $20 million this year. The University of Minnesota expects to lose as much as $50 million this year because of the federal budget cuts — more than 5 percent of the university’s $750 million research budget.

Peterson said current students are receiving the wrong signals about the world of research.

“They’re seeing their mentors, the old guys like me, having trouble getting funding or worrying about funding,” Peterson said. “And they’re saying, ‘gee if he’s having trouble getting funding, what are the odds I’m going to get funded as a new researcher?”’