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.
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 R. 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 to research 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: “[W]e 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 A. 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 S. 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.
Johns Hopkins reported $1.9 billion, most in the country. Scott L. Zeger, Hopkins’s vice provost for research, said sequester-driven cutbacks will occur “lab by lab, department by department, school by school.” Zeger said it is disheartening to have funding thrown into limbo when scientists are on the brink of major advances.
“This is a time to be doubling down,” Zeger said, “not to be backing off.”
The survey found that U-Md. ranked 33rd in the nation, with $338 million in federal research funding, just behind the California Institute of Technology and ahead of the University of California at Berkeley.
Among other area universities on the list, Georgetown had $124 million; George Washington, $117 million; and George Mason, $65 million.
At U-Md.’s Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics, physics and geology professor Daniel Lathrop, 46, oversees experiments backed by two NSF grants that provide a combined $306,000 a year.
One contraption in his lab enables the study of vortices in a medium so cold — liquid helium — that it is just a couple degrees above absolute zero. Another uses a pair of aluminum cylinders, one inside the other, to help track the effect of rotation on turbulence.
“The students in my group have been worried about all the talk of what’s going on,” Lathrop said. “They’re actually quite nervous. I’ve attempted to reassure them without being quite sure myself.”
David Meichle, 25, a graduate student from Rochester, N.Y., said he worries about a long-term trend. “If money’s starved from a generation of scientists, that’s very bad for the United States and the world,” Meichle said.
Research is deeply intertwined with the finances of the College Park campus. Patrick O’Shea, U-Md. vice president for research, said total research grant and contract revenue for 2013 — about $500 million, counting all sources — will surpass the estimated $470 million the university collects through tuition and fees.
O’Shea said U-Md. aims to position itself to win grants despite federal cuts.
“Even if the overall amount of funding available falls, our faculty can still do well if they submit proposals that are [of] higher quality than their competitors’,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said a graduate student recently asked him whether there would be enough funding to complete his program.
“I put on a good face,” O’Shea said. “But as he left, I asked myself, ‘What will I be able to say to him in April? Will his program be continued?’ ” Still, O’Shea said, U-Md. will make every effort to help students finish their work.
Obtaining grants is crucial for younger faculty members seeking to grow their laboratories.
Jeremy Munday, 33, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, oversees six graduate students conducting experiments with light and solar cells. One of their goals is to find cheaper and more efficient ways to convert sunlight into electricity — a quest of economic significance.
Munday recently won a NASA grant of $600,000 over three years. That supports two of his students. Now he’s planning to apply for more. He also has an eye on what is happening 10 miles southwest of his lab, on Capitol Hill.