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Earlier this year, cancer researcher Patricia Ernst of the University of Colorado, Denver, was thrilled when her postdoctoral fellow Therese Vu won a grant from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a nonprofit organization that has invested more than $ 1.2 billion in blood cancer research since its founding in 1949. The funding would allow scientists to start studies using a technique to generate malignant leukemia from immature blood cells, an approach Ernst had been eager to try for more than one decade. To start work, they traveled to Vancouver, Canada for 1 week to learn the technique, and developed a pipeline for new reagents through a laboratory at the University of Michigan. Then last month, the couple received bad news: The philanthropic organization canceled the grant, citing "unprecedented" revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I anticipated that there would be cuts," says Ernst. "But I didn't think it would be that serious, and I didn't think it would happen to us."
Many researchers are having similar experiences. Foundations funding biomedical research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere report a record drop in revenue due to the pandemic. An important factor: It has forced them to cancel key fundraising events, including dazzling galas, sponsored walks, Broadway partnerships, and even an event that sends thousands of American firefighters onto the streets, asking bystanders to support the investigation. doctor putting donations in a rubber boot. Many groups are trying to stop losses by cutting staff and delaying, cutting or canceling grants to researchers.
Chaos endangers a small, but fundamental, part of the scientific ecosystem. Although nonprofits provide only 5% of overall research funding in the US. In the US, they often support small, high-risk pilot studies that then allow researchers to attract larger grants from government funders, what Ross Levine, president of leukemia research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, calls " Wheels Training Scholarships ". And many of the grants go to young researchers, helping them launch their careers. "If you're in a room with vascular disease researchers, almost everyone will say their first grant came from [us]"Says Mariell Jessup, scientific and medical director of the American Heart Association (AHA).
So far, Jessup says, the AHA has been fortunate: Although donations have declined, the $ 890 million organization has not had to fire or terminate grants, but has postponed awarding a new round of grants.
Red ink is drowning other American groups. At the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which last year spent about $ 40 million on its $ 190 million budget for research, officials predicted a $ 60 million deficit in 2020; They have given 78 of their 198 beneficiaries a 15% "haircut". Susan G. Komen, the largest nonprofit that funds breast cancer research, laid off nearly 20% of its 211 employees, closed 30 of its 61 local affiliates, and unveiled future grant cycles. The Muscular Dystrophy Association, which has its annual "Fill the Boot" fundraiser with firefighters for 25% of its annual income, has suspended many of its development staff and canceled plans to award new grants. In the American Cancer Society (ACS) $ 724 million, a $ 200 million drop in revenue has led her to lay off 1,000 of its 4,300 employees. "If current trends continue," says medical director William Cance, ACS could temporarily cut research funding in half.
Smaller organizations, such as Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), have not been spared: PPMD faces a 35% budget gap, says CEO Pat Furlong. Such family organizations occupy a critical niche, catalyze research for some 7,000 rare diseases, and help develop new treatments for populations that are often overlooked by larger funders, Furlong says. Due to COVID-19, PPMD warned beneficiaries that financing is "a daily process" that could "involve some cuts," says Furlong, and the group has suspended future rounds of financing.
The cuts hit close to home for Furlong, whose two children died of muscular dystrophy in their teens. "In rare diseases, [families] are on this finite path, to change the trajectory of [their] child, "she says." Even a single day late [for research] can exclude them from the trial [they’ve] I was desperate to participate. "
In the United Kingdom, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), whose members last year sent £ 1.9 billion to biomedical researchers (compared to £ 1.8 billion in funding provided by the UK government), reports a drop 38% average on fundraising revenue. Organizations that rely on thrift stores and other companies to raise funds have lost more than 90% of their revenue. Although the UK government has provided financial support to some non-profit organizations, none of them is available for medical research, and charities are also unable to access government support for commercial R&D.
The deficiencies are forcing groups to withdraw or defer grants, says AMRC CEO Aisling Burnand. Cancer Research UK, which funds half of the country's non-commercial cancer research, has cut its funding by about 10%, or £ 44 million, says CEO Michelle Mitchell. The cuts will be deepened if charities no longer receive government support, he adds, given the projected deficit of £ 150m by the nonprofit. And the crisis could have long-lasting effects on the next generation of research. "We are in danger of destroying the value of a decade of future work, infrastructure and talent," says Mitchell.
Vu, for example, hoped to have gathered enough data from his pilot study in October to apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now, even if you can find replacement funds, you think it will be an additional 12-18 months before you can apply to the NIH. And because the leukemia researcher is from Australia, a funding cut could jeopardize his work visa in the United States. "I don't want to be all 'woe to me', but young people, we have faced the worst," he added. "That is Australian slang, hammered, we young people have been hammered."
The loss of nonprofit grants could also hurt researchers looking for funds for high-risk ideas that can't get the support of government funders, says Maryrose Franko, CEO of the Health Research Alliance, which represents 85 funders from non-profit investigations. "We mock the investigation for the government and accept the failure," says Franko. "If we are not financing it, who will?"
With reports from Cathleen O'Grady.
* Correction, June 24, 11 AM: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated how many employees the American Cancer Society has.