It’s everywhere! The Recession’s Impact on Research

Posted by Joan Rachlin, Executive DirectorIt’s the official “one week and counting” homestretch before Christmas, and the media outlets are full of speculation as to how the recession will affect the season’s traditional buying frenzy.

Beyond the consumer spending angle, these sad and scary stories about the economy got me thinking about how the economic downturn will affect research. While much is unknown, it’s clear that the financial quicksand will have a profound impact on research.

I’m no expert, but it seems likely that patients—some of whom might also be prospective research subjects—have the most to lose. Job losses, rising prices, shrinking bank accounts, and/or housing travails, can translate to mounting medical bills, thus adding to their “dis-ease” (AKA, “stress”). It’s also conceivable that financial constraints could force the patient to consider enrolling in a study for reasons that contradict the Belmont Report’s principles of autonomy and justice.

Those research subjects currently enrolled in clinical trials could also be affected if the funding is reduced or even terminated. Subjects who might be benefitting from a therapy or test article might have a harder time continuing to obtain that drug or device. Those who were not responding to the drug, etc. will likely have to wait longer for a new trial given the widespread funding cutbacks

Voluntary health organizations, which power scientific advancement and the wider economy, have also taken a hit. Their walks and other fundraisers are suffering because donations and grants have declined. Research that was on the drawing board when the recession hit—e.g., diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses—could confront delays of indeterminate length if the funding declines or disappears.

Flat-lined NIH funding has dramatically affected research institutions, including hospitals, and universities. I read recently that the Clinical Translational Science Awards will see a reduction of almost 5%. These awards were the NIH’s way of stimulating the interface among medical research institutions and their decrease is thus very unfortunate.

When the federal budget is strained, state budgets are strangled, and state research institutions, hospitals, and universities will all be squeezed by the downturn.

Pharma, biotech, and device manufacturers are not exempt from this equal-opportunity “destroyer” either. In the past, as federal funds dried up, industry stepped in to fill the void. Today, though, the headlines are shouting about major cuts at Merck, Pfizer, and others, so it seems unlikely there will be much “rescuing” of research from those quarters.

Among those caught in the economic vise are researchers and research staff. Less available money means less research.

No surprise, then, that IRBs, IACUCs, IBCs, ESCROs, and other ethics committees and oversight mechanisms will be affected. Their continued vigilance is more needed than ever given the above-listed possibilities and pressures, and I therefore hope that they continue upholding their charge to protect subjects, identify and manage conflicts, and advance ethical, responsible, high quality science despite economic pressures and inadequate numbers of staff.

Everyone is affected, but we react to this new reality in different ways. Some of us are stressed, afraid, in denial, or “all of the above.” Then there are those fortunate optimists among us who are simply biding their time until things get better. Things will, hopefully, get a whole lot better once families and friends come together during these fast-approaching winter holidays.

If you have a moment during this busy time of year, please let us hear your stories as to how the economy is affecting your professional life and any strategies you might want to share for minimizing the negative impact on any stakeholders. Thanks and happy healthy holidays to all!