Science Funding Delayed

Harvard committee will no longer accept proposals for seed grants this year

Funding from a fledgling Harvard grant program for interdisciplinary science has become the University’s latest casualty of the financial crisis.

The Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee—created in January 2007 to oversee interdisciplinary science across Harvard’s schools—will no longer accept seed grant proposals for cross-departmental research this spring, University Provost and committee chair Steven E. Hyman said Friday.

This year’s spring deadline, which would have been the program’s third round of seed grants, has been postponed to February of next year. When it resumes accepting grant applications, the committee intends to maintain the level of funding awarded—up to $75,000 for each project to be spent over one year.

Funding for the seed grants comes from a combination of central administration and science school resources. And with a projected 30 percent decline in the University’s endowment value for the year ending June 30, Harvard administrators bracing themselves for severe budget cuts in the next fiscal year have decided not to fund an additional round of grants during the current academic year.

Hyman did not say whether HUSEC will return to reviewing proposals on a biannual basis next year.

The decision to cut the spring round coincides with a spike in federal funding allocated for scientific research in the $787 billion stimulus package signed into law two weeks ago.

“We thought that letting people focus on federal funds applications this semester, but retaining a seed grant program, would be the wisest policy,” Hyman said.

The stimulus package provides $21.5 billion for research and development, with $10.4 billion appropriated for the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, all of which must be distributed over a two-year period.

In fiscal year 2008, Harvard received $351 million in funding from the NIH and $37 million from the NSF.

These federal agencies tend to be more conservative, backing research that is more likely to yield results such as clinical applications.

The HUSEC seed grants, on the other hand, are intended to promote innovative research that may not have enough preliminary evidence to receive federal funding, Hyman said.

The head of the genetics department at the Harvard Medical School, Clifford J. Tabin—who received $50,000 last spring to study evolutionary changes in skin appendages like hair and nails—called the decrease in non-federal funding for the sciences “a concern, especially for young researchers starting out and for mid-level faculty who need to keep their momentum.”

Last spring, the committee awarded six inaugural seed grants totaling over $300,000 to fund basic research projects such as treating high blood pressure with nanoparticles and stem cells.

The decision to review proposals only once this year comes as competition for seed grant funding has increased significantly since the program’s inception.

The number of applications jumped from 12 to 40 since the inaugural round, while the number of grants awarded has remained constant at six.

—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.