By now, everyone should be aware of the Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme, which swindled $50 billion from investors. What you may not be aware of is the impact of this scandal on science. Multiple private foundations that fund research have announced that they were victims of Madoff’s scheme. These organization include the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, the Picower Foundation, and the Wunderkind Foundation, and potentially others that have not publicly announced they are victims. When we combine the funds lost as a result of the Madoff scheme with the effects of the current economic downturn, which has cost some private foundations up to 30-40% of their assets, we begin to paint a frightening picture of private research funding. Many of these organizations have announced that they will not be able to fund new research projects in the coming fiscal year, while others have ceased all grant-making, including the payment of grants that have already been awarded, for at least the coming fiscal year.
The effects of this are already being felt at research institutions around the country, including right here in Pittsburgh. Timothy Greenamyre, a Parkinson’s Disease researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, has announced that he lost a $750,000/year grant from the Picower Foundation, which will be closing its doors altogether in the next few months. Furthermore, my own boss has announced that he will not receive renewals of previously-awarded grants from both the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, two organizations that have suffered losses due to the poor economy.
If you have read this blog before, you know that most funding for biomedical research is awarded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). You should also be aware that the funding levels of the NIH are among all-time lows as the budget of the NIH has effectively been dropping for the past 8 years. Unfortunately, with the inability of private foundations to fund new awards, and in some cases not even being able to honor their previous obligations, more and more researchers are going to turn to the NIH, and the percentage of funded grants will undoubtedly drop even further over the next year. As a result, many outstanding research projects will not be funded, and many academic scientists may even lose their labs if they are not able to replace lost funding.
We all suffer from this. Scientific advancement requires money, and lots of it. Without science funding, diseases remain uncured and unchecked, healthcare practices and techniques are unimproved, and our overall technological advancement is inhibited. While no one can accurately predict what the coming year holds, we can say that, right now, the foreseeable future of science funding looks grim.