For the past eight years, Union Graduate College’s Bioethics Program has trained students from Central and Eastern Europe in research ethics, with the goal of preventing pharmaceutical companies from conducting experiments that are potentially harmful to individuals in developing countries.
So far, about 57 students from 17 countries have completed the program.
But last week Union Graduate College decided not to enroll this year’s group of students. Because of funding uncertainty stemming from the federal sequester, the school has yet to learn whether the four-year, $1.1 million grant that funds the program will be renewed.
“We were supposed to get notified by February,” said Sean Philpott, the acting director of the Center for Bioethics at Union. “We submitted our grant application in May, and it was reviewed in October, but the committee that makes funding decisions hasn’t even met yet.” The problem isn’t the quality of the grant application, he said. “We received an exceedingly high score.”
The grant comes from the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health, an agency that has been hard hit by the sequester — the across-the-board spending cuts that began going into effect on March 1 as a result of Congress’ failure to develop a concrete plan for cutting the federal deficit. Unless Congress intervenes, about $85 billion in federal spending is scheduled to be cut by the end of the fiscal year — Sept. 30 — and a total of $1.2 trillion is slated to be cut by 2021.
Philpott noted that the sequester will cut $1.6 billion from NIH’s budget this year, and that more than 1,000 grant proposals would likely go unfunded.
Other local colleges and universities are also seeing project funding fall into limbo.
Officials say that long term research projects risk losing much-needed funding, and that new, promising projects are increasingly unlikely to receive any funding at all. For many researchers, the future is unclear: They hope that funds will be restored, but the ongoing battle over budget cuts in Congress is delaying grant awards and causing scientists and researchers to wonder whether the money they need will ever become available.
“The sequester is very unfortunate for the research income of New York state,” said Timothy Killeen, president of the Research Foundation for the State University of New York.
Killeen said that one of the state’s biggest sources of research dollars, the National Science Foundation, will suffer deep cuts as a result of the sequester, and that New York could lose $22 million of its $434 million in NSF funding.
“That’s a significant hit to research and development in New York, there’s no question about it,” Killeen said. “The biggest danger is that we might lose a generation of brilliant young researchers, that if it’s too hard to break in, we’re going to lose people and lose ideas.” If the cuts due to sequestration continue, “It’s hard to imagine a future where New York institutions are not going to suffer,” he said.
University officials warned that cutting research funding could hurt the U.S. in the long run by making the country less competitive and less innovative.
“We’re competing against the rest of the world,” said Jonathan Dordick, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “You can’t take research and say, ‘Let’s take a break for a year or two.’”
James Dias, vice president of research at the University at Albany, agreed, noting that one of the university’s younger scientists was just informed that there’s no funding available for her project.
Dias said that younger scientists “are the folks who are going to replace people like me, and they’re going to say, ‘I’m not doing this.’ ... That’s going to have a huge impact on the U.S. We’re not going to be the ones coming up with the new drugs or the new therapies. At the end of the day, what fuels the innovation, the risk taking, the discoveries that make a difference, is federal funding.”
Dias said that the University at Albany will lose between $3 million and $5 million per year as a result of the sequester. Last year, the school’s federal expenditures totaled about $51.7 million.
Dordick said that the impact of the sequester at RPI has been minimal thus far. Right now, the school is dealing with a delay in funding, rather than a loss; he noted that President Barack Obama signed a spending bill last week that will keep every Cabinet agency funded through this fiscal year.
“Our faculty are not sure if their grants will be funded, but I think most of the funds that we’ve gotten will be received,” he said. The real loss, he said, will come later, when projects that could have gotten funding before sequestration go unfunded.
RPI’s main sources of federal grant funding are the National Science Foundation and the NIH, although the school also receives money from other agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dordick estimated that RPI stood to lose between 5 percent and 8 percent of its federal grant funding over the course of the year. He said that the school’s overall grant funding — about $100 million per year — would likely remain flat, rather than decrease, because RPI has been more successful at obtaining grants in recent years. What the slowdown in federal grant funding could do is make it harder for RPI to achieve one of its key goals: increasing its grant dollars from $100 million to $250 million by 2024. About three-quarters of RPI’s grant funding comes from the federal government.
According to the Albany-based Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, a statewide association of more than 100 institutions, sequestration will cost them $110 million in the current fiscal year. Those cuts will impact two key areas: scientific research and financial aid.
The commission estimates that the state will lose $4.41 million in federal work study funds this fiscal year, out of a total of $86.47 million, and $2.71 million in Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant funds, out of a total of $53.06 million. The SEOG program provides needy students with financial assistance.
Union College in Schenectady will likely see some reduction in its federal financial funding.
But the impact will be minimal, said Linda Parker, financial aid director. She estimated that in fiscal year 2013-2014, the school would lose about $20,000 in work study money and SEOG money. “We can handle $20,000,” she said.
Over the past decade, it has been increasingly difficult for research institutions to obtain federal funding for research, as the grant process has become more competitive and the purse strings have tightened, officials said.
Dordick said that he’s waiting to hear whether he’ll receive an NIH grant for his biotechnology research, which involves developing paint that contains bacteria-killing enzymes and could be used to combat MRSA, a difficult-to-treat infection that often occurs in hospital or health care settings.
Dias, whose research in biochemical endocrinology is also funded by the NIH, is also waiting to learn about a grant application.
The grant process is “very competitive,” he said. “At the institution where I get my grants, the funding level has dropped below the 10th percentile. That means that nine out of the 10 times you submit a proposal, it’s not going to get funded. That’s a real deterrent to those who are starting out in their careers.”
He said that he has a grant application that’s up for review with NIH in June.
“The chances are slim, but you can’t stop writing grants,” Dias said. “It’s like the lottery — if you don’t play, you don’t win.”
Historically, the federal government has provided the bulk of the funding for basic research in the U.S., and these investments usually pay back over time, Killeen said. “Google started out as a small NSF proposal,” he noted.
Called the “Advanced Certificate Program in Research Ethics for Central and Eastern Europe,” the Union Graduate College program is designed to educate people who will return to their home countries and implement scientific protocols to protect research participants, as well as influence policy. Most of the students are doctors or academics.
Most of the program’s grant money is spent on training and supporting the students, but some of it is used to pay faculty and staff, Philpott said. If the grant is not renewed, UGC will be forced to dip into its general fund to pay faculty and staff, he said.
“That isn’t money we were planning to spend,” he said. “The effect of this delay in notification has a ripple effect.”
Philpott said that the sequester is terrible policy.
“It’s the worst thought-out thing ever,” he said.