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'Slow-Growing Cancer'

July 11, 2013

WASHINGTON -- When Steven Warren, the vice chancellor for research at the University of Kansas, sought on Wednesday to describe the effects of several months of across-the-board federal budget cuts on scientific research, it was perhaps inevitable that he chose a scientific metaphor.

On campus, he said, sequestration is “a slow-growing cancer.” The budget cuts went into effect in March, after Congress failed to reach a long-term deal on deficit reduction. They affect a wide range of domestic spending, including money for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies that funnel research dollars to faculty and students at universities nationwide.

A group of chief research officers gathered here for an annual roundtable sponsored by the Association of American Universities and the Science Coalition, an organization of 54 public and private research universities, mostly agreed. In the months since the budget cuts took effect, they said, they’ve already felt some immediate impact on campus: grants canceled for some young scientists, and an overall sense that the peer review selection process for federal money was becoming ever more competitive.

But they said they fear the worst effects of the budget cuts are decades away. The research officers warned that 5 percent cut to research spending, coupled with the generally tighter federal budget environment of recent years, could drive universities to rely more on private donors and industry, curtail interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and hurt a generation of young faculty who will find it even tougher than in the past to get a career-defining research grant.

They also appeared to face sequestration with resignation: four months after it took effect, many believe that the budget cuts are here to stay.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a few effects have already been felt on campus, said Jonathan Dordick, the college’s vice president for research. Some federal grants aimed at early-career researchers have been canceled, he said, and that could be “quite damaging long-term.” He said the college is cutting its numbers of postdoctoral fellows because of the drop in federal funding.

At Duke University, some researchers might pass up on updating instrumentation to the latest technology, meaning the university could become less competitive, said James Siedow, vice provost for research.

But most administrators spoke of more general effects -- a sense of tension and uncertainty on campus about the funding situation, even among undergraduates. “We don’t know really exactly how this is going to play out,” Warren said.

They warned of far-reaching consequences. Dordick said he feared the precarious funding situation could drive faculty to pursue less innovative research and to prefer the stability of well-established fields. Others echoed his concerns, saying that basic and speculative research would be most likely to suffer, and that long-term projects could become logistically difficult if the flow of federal dollars remains unstable.

Dordick also suggested that less-experienced faculty in particular are more likely to be affected as federal grants dry up. Since success in attracting research funding is taken into consideration during considerations for promotion and tenure, new faculty facing a more competitive environment are likely to suffer as a result, he said.

Both young and more experienced faculty are beginning to look overseas, where research funding is more robust, said Pat O’Shea vice president and chief research officer at the University of Maryland at College Park. He said he feared a “reverse brain drain” -- students making choices that were the opposite of his own, when he came to the United States to study as an Irish graduate student. Then, “the U.S. was the go-to place,” he said. But he sees today’s Irish graduate students going elsewhere in Europe instead.

Still, he said, he worries less about the research universities in the Science Coalition and at Wednesday’s roundtable than about colleges with fewer resources. “We’ve become much more efficient, more competitive in terms of applying” for grants, he said. “I worry about institutions who don’t have that sort of support.”
 

 

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