Sequestration pain

By Rachel E. Cabose

Despite budget deal, the impact of cuts in federal grants lingers for MSU researchers, threatening the quality of research and jobs

In the 2012-13 academic year, Michigan State University lost $86 million in federal research funding, a 31 percent drop from the year before, according to an MSU external funding report. With federal grants making up 75 percent of the university’s external research funding, the cuts indicate a major hit to ongoing attempts at scientific advancement, threatening jobs and the quality of research.

The funding cut — from $277 million to $191 million — is the result of a gridlocked Congress in recent years that struggled to reach budget deals, culminating last year in across-the board, automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

Though it’s difficult to determine precisely how much of that drop is to blame on the sequester, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said the federal budget cuts “definitely” hurt. “Sequestration had an impact on the amount of money that all federal funding agencies that MSU works with were giving out,” he said.

Congress’s inability to agree on a deficit reduction plan led to automatic spending cuts of $85 billion as required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. When the sequester took effect March 1, federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy saw their budgets decrease 3 to 5 percent.

As a result, in 2013 these agencies awarded fewer new research grants and the National Institutes of Health reduced the dollar amount of existing grants. At universities across the country those cuts have meant jobs lost, research projects shelved and labs shuttered.

The cuts only exacerbated the already challenging quest for research funding. MSU researchers say the increasing unpredictability of federal funding, exemplified by October’s government shutdown, steers prospective scientists away from academic research toward careers that are less dependent on the whims of Washington politicians.

Beronda Montgomery, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, saw the impact of budget cuts in her lab, which studies how plants respond to changes in light. About 95 percent of her funding for salaries and supplies comes from federal grants, she said.

When one of her grants lapsed last year and was not renewed, Montgomery had to release one employee and shift others to funded projects.

Though sequestration was temporary, the consequences of a temporary lapse in funding can be lasting. “Research projects are long-trajectory,” Montgomery said. “You have to keep them going.” Biological materials for a shelved experiment will not miraculously come back to life a year or two later when funds become available.

Congressional budget wrangling also delayed construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, MSU’s cutting-edge particle accelerator. The Department of Energy, a major funder of the project, has faced a blanket prohibition on new construction for more than a year because it has been operating under various “continuing resolutions” — temporary spending measures to fund the government while legislators reached a budget deal.

Construction on the accelerator building itself could have started in September 2013, according to Mark Burnham, MSU’s vice president for governmental affairs. It’s now scheduled for spring. Meanwhile, work has proceeded on other fronts in an effort to keep the project on schedule.

Scientific brain drain

Sequestration only worsened an existing problem: growing demand for a limited number of federal grants. The National Institutes of Health, for example, reviewed twice as many grant applications in 2012 as in 1997, but it increased the number of grant awards only modestly, from 7,388 to 9,032. Thus a researcher’s chance of getting a grant from the agency dropped from 30.5 percent to 17.6 percent.

Real federal dollars spent on research and development declined 16 percent over the past four years, from $158.8 billion in 2010 to an estimated $133.2 billion in 2013, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.

As a percent of GDP, the government’s investment in research and development is less than half what it was at its peak in the early 1960s — an estimated .82 percent in 2013 versus nearly 2 percent in 1964, according to AAAS and the Congressional Budget Office. Industry has picked up the slack, but that means more dollars going to applied research and product development rather than basic scientific investigation.

Michigan’s cap on tuition hikes puts increased pressure on universities to find alternate sources of funding, said Chris Maxwell, associate dean for research at MSU’s College of Social Science. “We have greater demand on faculty to get grants all the time,” he said. The message is that “you won’t get promoted, you won’t be retained as a faculty member, if you don’t have sponsored research programs.”

Hardest hit by funding cuts are the nation’s up-and-coming scientists: graduate students and postdocs who need jobs in faculty research labs to earn their degrees or launch their careers, and untenured professors just starting their research programs.

Jim Anthony, professor of epidemiology at MSU, sees those challenges firsthand. He directs a mentoring program funded by the National Institutes of Health that helps junior faculty members across the country design new research on the prevention and treatment of drug problems. His program includes pilot study funds so they can demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas.

Because of sequestration cutbacks, this year the 11 assistant professors in the program each received less than $8,000 for their pilot research instead of the originally budgeted $15,000. A smaller grant means a smaller pilot study and less convincing evidence of their new ideas. That limits their ability to secure further grants for in-depth research.

The ultimate losers, he pointed out, are the patients who could benefit from improved drug prevention and treatment.

Researchers say that what’s ultimately at stake is America’s ability to lead in addressing the world’s major problems, from climate change to terrorism to rising healthcare costs.

“Many of the grand challenges are going to be solved by evidence-based solutions that provide clear direction of where to go,” said Maxwell, of the College of Social Science. “If Congress wants to ensure efficient, effective and fair outcomes, they’re going to have to fund scientists.”