NW Biotech Education Group Faces Loss of Federal Money, Deep Cuts

5/2/13Follow @xconomy

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR), a nonprofit that fosters science education and public understanding of research in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, is contemplating the deepest cuts in the organization’s history, as it expects to lose about half of its annual budget because of federal spending cuts.

The Seattle-based organization, which reported a $1.2 million budget in its fiscal 2012 year, learned last month that one of its most important federal funding sources is drying up and that another important leg of its stool is also likely to fall away this year. NWABR expects to lose a pair of federal grants—one through the National Institutes of Health and another from the National Science Foundation—that provide about $500,000 a year in combined support.

While the decisions aren’t final yet, President Obama’s budget proposal calls for eliminating the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program from the National Institutes of Health that the local group had expected would provide $1.25 million of support over the next five years, executive director Susan Adler says. The odds are also unlikely NWABR will receive another round of grant funding from the National Science Foundation under the competitive peer-reviewed system, after it won a $1.3 million grant in 2009 to support bioinformatics teaching in secondary schools.

The combination of those two blows, coming around the same time, means the organization is being forced to vacate its office in lower Queen Anne, consider staff cuts to its team of nine full and part-timers, and to re-think which programs it will be able to offer. NWABR has a broad base of members in the region—it counts the University of Washington, University of Oregon, Amgen, Novo Nordisk, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center among its supporters—but it still collected about 60 percent of its funding in the most recent fiscal year from federal sources.

Jeanne Chowning (left) and Susan Adler of NWABR

“We’re re-thinking everything,” Adler says.

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research is probably best known in the community for its annual Student Bio Expo. This public event, held every spring, matches up high school students to work on science projects with professional mentors who work at the region’s top biotech companies and research institutions. This year, 375 students have registered for the event on May 22 at the University of Washington’s new Husky Union Building, says Jeanne Chowning, the group’s director of education.

Besides the work with high school students—which has attracted my attention and that of other media over the years—the NWABR group does other work behind the scenes. The group runs a speaker’s bureau to help train scientists to explain their work to public audiences, partly as a way to foster better understanding and more public support for biomedical research, Adler says.

The group also seeks to stir dialogue about research ethics within the scientific community, and reach out to explain ethical issues more clearly to civic organizations and the public at large. NWABR traces its origins to the late 1980s, when an animal rights activist damaged a primate research facility at Washington State University, prompting leaders of many Washington research institutions to band together to create a nonprofit that could explain biomedical research to the public, Adler says.

Given the likelihood of federal budget cuts, Alder says NWABR is hoping that it will be able to make up for some of the shortfall at this year’s fundraising dinner, to be held on June 4 in Seattle.

“We want to make sure that our NWABR community remains one that centers at the intersection of research, ethics and education. That is our connective tissue,” Adler says.

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  • Carnesr

    This organization and their curriculum and professional development is one of the foundational pieces of my science teaching. The staff is professional and the curriculum is cutting edge and relevant. Huge loss.