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Finding Dollars

The escalating competition for research funding

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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Most research scientists would say that the competitive process for research funding over the last decade has been grueling, ruthless, and even cutthroat. Now, however, a number of researchers as well as their professional organizations appear to be openly implying that the United States is cutting its own throat by defunding innovation-sprouting research.

If you ask a roomful of research scientists to characterize the competitive process for research funding during the last decade or two, several of them will use words like grueling or even ruthless—a few may even call it cutthroat. Now, however, a number of researchers, and in some cases their professional organizations, appear to be openly implying that the United States (US) is cutting its own throat by defunding innovation-sprouting research via a bludgeon known as the sequester, or more properly, the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Budget sequestration is one of the bitter fruits of Washington gridlock, and earlier this year it unleashed the automatic axing of federal spending. Unless Congress changes the schedule, there will be a total of at least $1.3 trillion in cuts in the course of nine years— from January 2013 through 2021. These cuts will affect almost all federal research and development (R&D) funding, with no segment in the science and technology (S&T) research space escaping.

For researchers reliant on government funding for their projects, these cuts have transformed an inherently tough environment into an ultracompetitive one. Prof. Vish Krishnan of the Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego, describes the ongoing “fact of life” in this area. “There is very little room at the top in terms of grant funding—there is heavy competition.”

Krishnan gives voice to the frustrations and hopes of many researchers when he notes, “The competition for funds is getting tougher and tougher—hopefully this will get a little bit better when the economy picks up.”

Unfortunately, even amidst signs of gains in certain sectors of the US economy, a number of recipients of stimulus funding in programs such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, who were expecting (and really needed) more federal support, had to contend instead with the devastation of sequestration and the chilling uncertainty about what’s coming next.

Seasoned observers like Krishnan note that the research world is now gripped with high anxiety that has a crippling impact on morale. He notes that this is affecting cooperation and dampening the willingness to share. When the pie is bigger, people are more willing to work together, according to Krishnan. The corollary is equally true— as the available funding shrinks, economic forces severely impede the willingness to share resources, and, in fact, tensions and conflicts may escalate.

As of now, though, the overwhelming trend is that the supply of money for research from the primary source, the US federal government, is shriveling. Relative to 2012, the 2013 R&D funding budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which disposes of about 85 percent of its cash in the form of research grants, has been trimmed 5.5 percent, down to $28.3 billion in 2013 versus $30 billion in 2012. According to an NIH estimate, this could mean that the institute will issue 700 fewer grants in 2013 relative to 2012. So bleak is the funding picture that while existing grants will be paid out as planned, they could well be trimmed by an average rate of 4.7 percent.

Cuts of such magnitude have been described as dramatic or even radical, words that don’t appear to entirely reflect the scope of the problem. The Department of Defense’s S&T budget is down 4.6 percent ($12.7 billion in 2013 versus $13.3 billion in 2012), NASA’s research budget was slashed by 6.6 percent, the Department of Energy’s by 7.3 percent, and, most tellingly, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) by 3.4 percent, from $5.7 billion in 2012—believed to be less than the total amount of money spent by Americans on the purchase of potato chips during the year—to $5.5 billion in 2013. In the case of the NSF, this will mean—based on an estimate by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—this premier source of federal research money will issue 1,500 fewer research grants. Based on some funding cycle peculiarities, the possibility exists that the cuts will not be as deep—possibly resulting in a reduction of 600 rather than the full 1,500 grants.

To be sure, these numbers translate into real pain for a large number of highly trained researchers. At the behest of the Aerospace Industry Association, a study conducted by George Mason University estimated that proposed cuts could mean some form of furloughs or pink slips for about 60,000 federal workers in architectural and engineering disciplines in 2013 alone.

While the overall picture appears overwhelmingly grim, there is the expectation in some camps that the cutbacks will in the long run prove beneficial to the US economy. Proponents of this view even suggest that there may be creative ways to reapportion the current research funding pie—such as removing the long-held belief that already funded projects are sacrosanct and must be supported to completion, even to the detriment of new meritorious and deserving projects. One distinct possibility is that some ongoing projects may have to be halted anyway because of reduced funding. This is quite troubling, and may even be wasteful. In some cases—such as genetic engineering and related studies—when a research program that has been in progress for some time is suspended, resumption means restarting all procedures from scratch.

Long-term benefits may well be the case at some point in the future. In the meantime, however, the immediate impact has been devastation on an extensive scale. And it could not have come at a worse time. As global competition in S&T ramps up— ‘the rise of the rest phenomenon’—by any measure, a large number of US scientists are hamstrung by the lack of cash to continue their work.

At the recent (September 19 and 20) TIME (magazine) Summit on Higher Education cosponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, Phyllis Wise, chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted: “America’s standing is enviable, but in danger of eroding. We simply can’t afford to curb key research efforts and undermine university-powered economic activity. It is ironic and alarming that other nations are fast emulating the federal-government/research-university partnership that has made the United States the world’s technological and scientific giant even as the danger of that model’s systematic dismantling here at home becomes increasingly apparent.”

To comprehend the magnitude of the role played by federal funds in US R&D, consider a recent report in Stateline, a daily news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts: In 2011, federal funding made up $40 billion of the $65 billion dollars American universities spent on research. According to other recent reports, as much as 80 percent of the research budgets of major US research universities, including Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, and University of Washington, originate in the federal coffers.

In results from a recent study led by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)—based on online surveys that reached 3,700 scientists from all 50 states during June and July of 2013—a substantial majority (67%) of the scientists reported receiving less federal money than three years ago (2010). And only 2 percent acknowledged receiving funds from their employers (mostly academic institutions) to make up for the shortfall. This translated into the drastic diminishment of staff and to more hiring freezes. Some 68 percent of the researchers surveyed reported having no money to grow their research operations, while 55 percent said that they knew of colleagues who lost their jobs or could do so soon. Meanwhile, about 80 percent of the scientists report expending greater efforts as they laboriously apply for larger numbers of research grants and other forms of funding in hopes of improving their chances of success. The report also suggested that about one-fifth (18%) of researchers in the country are considering relocating to other countries to pursue their research specialties because of the current bleak funding opportunities in the US.

To be sure, no aspect of the scientific enterprise seems to be untouched by the cuts. There have been severe cutbacks in travel and participation in scientific conferences and meetings, some of which have hefty registration fees. Scientific meetings have historically provided important venues for collaboration with contemporaries and for sharing and debating cutting-edge methodologies and ideas. No scientists, and even administrators who vigilantly manage travel budgets, will doubt the value of these meetings that typically facilitate the free exchange of ideas face-to-face. Now, however, researchers are being encouraged to seek out Web-based meetings, and out of desperation many of them are relying more heavily on published technical literature.

Overall, there is widespread belief that the S&T spending cuts are misguided. There is little dispute that research stimulates innovation and drives the economy. An analysis by Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, DC-based think tank, projected that sequester-based decreases in R&D funding would reduce the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US by as much as $860 billion over the affected nine years.

Benefits are also quite evident at the state level. At the TIME summit, Chancellor Wise noted that a 2009 study indicated that the university and its medical affiliates had an impact to the tune of $13.1 billion on the Illinois state economy. Among the benefits was the creation of 150,000 new jobs. She further noted, “Innovative research in Illinois alone has led to 34 start-up companies and over 300 new patents over the last five years.”

To be sure, this benefits picture is only a part of the overall story. In addition to the economic externalities associated with the establishment of science-based businesses and related enterprises, the economic gains associated with breakthroughs in the form of new drugs, biologics, diagnostic tools, and medical and other devices are tremendous.

Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins reportedly characterized the cuts from the budget sequester as an exercise in irrationality. Giving an example of what the sequester could mean for public health, Dr. Collins says that people could well die from influenza five years from now because no universal vaccine has been developed as yet. There has been a barrage of reports on how the sequester is affecting almost all aspects of health care, including, very critically, the conducting of clinical trials. By most estimates, the societal, economic, and clinical benefits that have emanated from federal support for medical and overall health care research and development over the decades are incalculable.

Chancellor Wise characterizes the Budget Control Act of 2011 as “a short-term budget fix with a devastating cost to the long-term productivity of our economy and the vitality of our society.” In a supplement on the higher education summit in the October 7 edition of TIME, she noted: “The result in 2013 alone: a $12.5 billion reduction in federally financed research, and according to one estimate, the loss to the economy of an estimated 200,000 jobs.”

“Our strategic federal investment in our universities has provided immense dividends to the nation and the world for generations now. It is a commitment that we cannot abandon,” she notes.