Oklahoma's medical research programs will likely see fewer grant dollars due to federal budget cuts, and officials at the state's two medical schools worry that change could have dire consequences.
That impact comes in a state that already faces a shortage of primary care physicians — a problem officials say could worsen as the state begins to feel the effects of the cuts.
The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences depend heavily on grants handed out by a number of federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Those agencies are seeing their budgets slashed as a part of automatic spending cuts known as budget sequestration, leaving fewer grant dollars to go around.
Officials with the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have warned the cuts would lead to fewer grants available and cuts to the grants the agencies fund.
John Iandolo, OU Health Sciences Center's vice president for research administration, said the cuts could be “devastating” for the center.
The National Institutes of Health grants make up about 90 percent of the center's research funding, he said.
If less grant money is available, it could slow medical research not just at OU, but nationwide.
“Science is in for a rough time,” Iandolo said.
$19M shortfall is possible
It isn't yet clear how the cuts will be implemented within each agency, but Iandolo said he expects the center could stand to lose as much as $14 million in direct costs and another $5 million in indirect costs — the fees research centers charge agencies for the use of lab space, utilities, researchers and other services.
The loss of that funding generally means certain projects will go unfunded and others will be funded at different levels. That means fewer opportunities for students to work in laboratories and less money to pay graduate student researchers.
Iandolo's office provides small bridge grants to keep projects from being halted when funding lapses. Those grants are generally enough to allow the center to avoid layoffs, he said, but they can't shore up the shortfall created by budget cuts.
“There just isn't a whole lot that you can do,” he said.
Leigh Goodson, vice president of research and institutional advancement at the OSU Center for Health Sciences, said the cuts could affect not only the center's ability to do research, but also the number of potential doctors it is able to train.
The center relies on funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration for its doctor training programs.
Those programs are a critical piece of the state's effort to combat a shortage of medical professionals in Oklahoma.
Doc shortage persists
According to the 2012 edition of America's Health Rankings, a state-by-state breakdown of health factors, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in terms of availability of primary care physicians. Both of the state's medical schools have launched efforts to combat that shortage, particularly in rural and underserved areas across the state.
“We anticipate not being able to afford as many students as we did before,” Goodson said.
The center has a number of sources of funding other than federal agencies, including the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and a number of nonprofit groups, Goodson said. Having a diverse group of sources of funding may help lessen the impact of the cuts, she said.
Although most researchers recognize the need for the federal government to cut spending, Goodson said she hopes the impact of the cuts will be limited.
The grants that will be affected by the cuts fund important research projects that are critical to the future of health care in the state, she said.
“It's very important for the future of science,” she said. “It is difficult to think about less research going on.”
Science is in for a rough time.”
OU Health Sciences Center's vice