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Duke Clinical Research Institute cuts 56 jobs

Employee layoffs at the Duke Clinical Research Institute are indicative of the long-term effects the federal budget sequester will have on Duke research.

Fifty-six positions at DCRI were eliminated in March to address the institute’s “specific business needs” going into the future, said DCRI Director Dr. Eric Peterson. The downsize is relatively small, with DCRI employing over 1,000 people and only choosing not to renew 56 positions. Several of the employees affected by these eliminations were reassigned to different positions at DCRI or elsewhere in Duke Medicine, Peterson added.

The downsize indicates how the federal sequester will affect Duke research in the future.

“The impact of federal sequestration is more recent, but DCRI and the School of Medicine do have significant federal support, so this does have a significant impact on the future,” Peterson wrote in an email Tuesday. “We believe the steps we have taken to retool the organization will position us to continue to be a leader in clinical research.”

Because the U.S. Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was unable to forge a plan to cut $1.5 trillion over 10 years, the sequester was automatically put in place March 1. Large-scale spending cuts occurred across the board, including in defense spending and discretionary domestic spending, totaling $85 billion.

Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of the Duke University Health System, noted that the DCRI layoffs were necessary to plan for the future of Duke Medicine in the aftermath of the federal sequester.

The sequestration took 5 percent out of National Institute of Health funding, but this will increase to an 8 percent cut next year, Dzau said. Duke Medicine previously received around $350 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, resulting in a loss of $15 to $20 million due to sequestration, he added.

“All of life sciences research is overbuilt compared to the funding situation ahead of us,” Dzau said. “We needed to start planning and anticipating these issues.”

Peterson noted that the layoffs were necessary to improve efficiency and give DCRI a competitive edge.

“Restructuring was needed to ensure our continued success,” he said. “We need to be efficient in how we operate so that we can fulfill our research mission in this competitive field.”

As the field of research becomes increasingly competitive, Duke Medicine will have to choose which aspects of research should receive more money in a time with tight funding.

Dzau noted that Duke Medicine will have to look into whether more funding should be put into smaller labs, such as the one Dr. Robert Lefkowitz—Nobel laureate and James B. Duke professor of medicine and professor of biochemistry and immunology—used for his initial research, or into bigger labs for technology-intensive research such as genome sequencing.

“When money is tight, stakes are high, and we’re going to argue about where to put research money,” he said. “It’s about finding a balance.”

Doug Stokke, associate vice president of news and communication at the School of Medicine, noted that DCRI’s layoffs do not indicate that the same will happen in any other part of Duke Medicine.

“The actions taken by DCRI were specifically related to their business environment and are completely unrelated to any cost improvement work being done within the health system,” Stokke said.

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