The federal government, long a key sponsor of scientific research in universities, is scaling back support for academic laboratories from coast to coast to satisfy the new mandate to cut spending across the board.
About $30 billion a year flows from Washington to universities for research and development in fields from agriculture to astrophysics. This funding has helped make leading U.S. research universities, including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the University of Maryland in College Park, the envy of the world.
But the federal budget sequester that took effect this month — requiring cuts of about 5 percent in nondefense programs and more than 7 percent in defense — is likely to shrink research spending by more than $1 billion. Advocates warn that the cuts could hamper exploration in biomedical science, among other disciplines, and undercut efforts to ensure U.S. leadership in science and engineering.
The cuts will make it tougher for academics to win a grant. The National Science Foundation said it expects to make 1,000 fewer grants this year than the 11,000 it typically makes.
Sequester cuts and education
Almost immediately, it became tougher for students to enter doctoral programs in science and engineering. Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, which receives about $450 million a year in federal research funding, is admitting fewer graduate students this year because of the fiscal uncertainty.
“We are concerned that we don’t see more of a cooperative spirit in Washington,” said Dennis Hall, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for research. “It’s a little scary.”
Universities are urging Congress to stop the sequester, contending that it jeopardizes an engine of discovery and innovation that drives economic growth.
“To put it kindly, this is an irrational approach to deficit reduction,” Hunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, told a Senate committee Feb. 26. “To put it not so kindly, it is just plain stupid.”
Some lawmakers are seeking to soften the blow in a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.
Others say that a dose of fiscal austerity will help ensure that research funds aren’t wasted. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Tuesday sent the NSF a letter questioning several grants, including $325,000 to San Diego State University researchers who are using a robotic squirrel to study interactions between squirrels and rattlesnakes.
“Every dollar spent on projects such as these could have instead supported research to design a next-generation robotic limb to treat injured war heroes or a life-saving hurricane detection system,” Coburn wrote.
He added that “all federal agencies including NSF should continue to find ways to do more with less.”
For decades, federal funding of university research has received bipartisan support. There was no debate on that point during last year’s presidential race.
In his education platform, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said: “[We] must not lose sight of those policies that are working. The long-term federal investment in basic research within institutions of higher learning has been a crucial engine for innovation in our economy, and one that could not be replicated through other sources of funding. The government,” he said, should “maintain a strong commitment to research in the physical, biological and social sciences.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said cuts in research funding will sap the nation’s economic strength. “We talk a lot about threats to the United States,” Mikulski said recently. “We fear foreign threats and terrorism. We fear competition — ‘Oh, what are the Chinese doing?’ But we are about to inflict upon us a self-inflicted wound.”
Francis Collins, director of the NIH, a leading source of university biomedical research grants, voiced dismay at the prospect of $1.6 billion being cut from an annual NIH budget of about $31 billion.
“Imagine yourself as a young investigator with a great idea, ready to tackle it,” Collins told reporters Feb. 25. Funding for such ideas, he said, is growing more scarce.
“Undoubtedly this will result in slowing down some projects that are at an exciting juncture,” Collins said.
Washington’s reach into university labs is vast. An NSF survey found that 111 colleges and universities reported at least $100 million each in federally financed research and development spending in 2011. At that time, a federal economic-stimulus law was fueling expansion of research.