Scientist Shortage? Not In Seattle

Sep 25, 2013

Graduate student Antonio Abeyta cultures tissue at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Graduate student Antonio Abeyta cultures tissue at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

For decades, government agencies and business groups have equated science degrees with job security. Employment projections from Washington state show growth in life science jobs, and policy groups lament a shortage of American scientists. But people who counted on a secure career in the lab are having the rug yanked out from under them. In the wake of the recession and the federal budget sequester, they’re having to develop a Plan B.

Creating A Backup Plan

If I had a child right now, I would not be encouraging them to go into a science career.

State and local officials championed the concept of a life sciences hub in South Lake Union. But the growth of Amazon ended up having a much bigger impact on the neighborhood. The research institutions in the neighborhood are struggling amidst federal cutbacks.

Kathie Walters is a senior research scientist at the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology nearby. She studies how viruses can be used to treat other disorders. She never imagined it would be hard to find work. “If I had a child right now, I would not be encouraging them to go into a science career,” Walters said.

The budget for the National Institutes of Health was cut $1.5 billion this year, costing Washington state institutions about $45 million. Walters sees a “trickle effect” where grants are denied, labs close and researchers flow into a shrinking job market. “I think we’re just at the beginning of the bad times,” she said. “I think it’s just going to get worse over the next few years.”

Walters said this spring most of her lab was laid off; she remained but also consulted for a local biotech company. She said switching from grant-funded research to the investor-funded biotech industry could become her backup plan. But Walters said she may have to leave Seattle for the Bay Area or Boston if she wants to pursue that option.

Farewells

Farewell party for lab technician Kanan Lathia (left).
Farewell party for lab technician Kanan Lathia (left).
Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

Meanwhile a few blocks away at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a group of scientists gathered over the summer for cake and ice cream on an outdoor patio. Someone passing by mistook it for a birthday, but it was actually a farewell party for lab technician Kanan Lathia.

She did lab management and research at the Hutch for a group focused on breast and ovarian cancer treatments. Lathia said she became apprehensive several months ago as funding cuts took effect and told her husband they needed to start planning. “Nobody was getting funded, so that was kind of the bell ringing,” Lathia said.

Lathia was laid off because her lab didn’t have enough federal grant funding to cover her position. The Hutch provides what it calls “interim funding” for when grant money runs short, but they recently cut that funding by 30 percent.

Lathia said cutting the headliners at Seafair made more sense to her than cutting funds for scientific research. “I do believe there should be some cuts,” she said. “Like this year, we did not have the Blue Angels, that was good,” she said with a laugh.

As Lathia started the job hunt, she found few openings. She tried to stay optimistic and it ended up paying off. Just this week she started a new job with the nonprofit Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

But her former colleague, post-doc Kiran Dhillon, said losing Lathia was a setback for her lab at the Hutch. “Morale has taken a huge hit, it’s really hard to see a co-worker go,” Dhillon said. “And it actually slows down our research.” The remaining lab members must now take on Lathia’s duties in addition to their own work.

Cuts Will Hurt Younger Scientists

Postdoc Kiran Dhillon loves being on the 'edge of knowledge.' But layoffs will hurt their research.
Postdoc Kiran Dhillon loves being on the 'edge of knowledge.' But layoffs will hurt their research.
Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

Dhillon said that even at happy hour with her colleagues, the conversation always turns back to science. They’re passionate about their work and it’s coming as a shock that many in her generation may not get to work as scientists. As chair of the Hutch’s postdoc advisory committee, Dhillon helps young researchers contemplate life outside academia these days.

Fred Hutchinson Director Dr. Larry Corey said younger scientists are bearing the brunt of the federal cuts. They grew up at a time when research funding seemed plentiful. Now they can’t get their own research off the ground and their own mentors are struggling.

Corey said almost everyone in research medicine at some point had a mentor “who, frankly, protected me; who raised the money until I could write grants and start my own lab.” Now that protection has disappeared.

Corey said NIH has provided 85 percent of the Hutch’s funding since its inception. Foundations and other funding sources have emerged, but he said the sequester still affects every lab including his own. Corey said the cuts are coming just as recent cancer breakthroughs are poised to change patient treatments. “We can transform cancer in the next five years, more than we could in the previous 15,” he said.

Seattle Biotech Can't Offer Scientists Refuge

Corey said ultimately federal cuts will undercut research and US dominance in life science breakthroughs. As for the scientists in Seattle affected by cuts, they said local biotech firms aren’t hiring either. One biotech executive said venture capital has been tied up since the recession, and investors are sparse.

Stewart Lyman is a scientist and biotech industry consultant. He said local firms are just hanging on. And they’re mostly outsourcing the science. “They don’t have scientists in-house who are doing the experiments,” Lyman said. “They’ve contracted with someone else to do it.”

And this contract research is very focused; it won’t allow scientists to pursue the strange or surprising results that could become the next big cure. It’s a big change from when Lyman was working for Seattle-based Immunex in the early 1990s.

“It was just an unbelievably souped-up, ‘anything’s possible, go for it, we can do it’ environment,” Lyman said.  “We were enormously successful at bringing forward new drugs and new discoveries to the scientific community. These days those kinds of companies – nobody wants to fund those anymore.”

The bleak job market is a contrast to projections from federal and state agencies and business groups that forecast growth in life sciences. But Corey said the current focus on science in schools and universities is not misplaced. He said technology will continue to drive the US economy, and he’s hopeful that public support will push Congress to restore basic research funding.

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This story is part of The Big Reset, KUOW’s series that explores how the Puget Sound Region has emerged from the Great Recession.