Faculty Anticipate Science Research Funding from Obama Stimulus Package

The two-year clock has started ticking, and $21.5 billion from Obama’s stimulus package must be spent on research and development before September 2010. The University, hoping to claim its share of the federal funds, is scrambling to prepare preliminary proposals as it awaits further Congressional guidance.

University administrators have asked faculty to submit grant proposals so that once federal agencies give the green light on funding, researchers will be prepared to move ahead with projects.

While Harvard researchers anxiously await further guidance from federal grant-giving agencies, central administration officials are working with faculty across the science schools to provide the most up-to-date information on University prospects for federal funding, Harvard’s chief lobbyist Kevin Casey said this week.

“We’re not directing,” Casey said, pointing out that the bulk of federally funded projects are investigator-driven. “We’re a hub of information.”

The stimulus package provides $10.4 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion for the National Science Foundation. But no agency has provided details on how stimulus funds will be spent, according to a memo distributed to Harvard faculty and administrators last month.

The scale of the federal funding allotted for the sciences reflects the Obama administration’s understanding that university-based research plays an important role in driving long-term economic growth and development.

Neither the NIH nor the NSF provided comment regarding the timeline for allocating the funds yesterday. The decision depends on further instruction from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, an NSF spokesperson said.

Last year, University President Drew G. Faust testified before a Senate committee in favor of bolstering the NIH budget. Faust argued at the time that the 13 percent loss in real dollars of NIH funding had “a cascading impact that [was] slowing progress and threatening future research that could lead to cures—and even ways to prevent disease.”

Faced with a flat budget since 2003, the NIH suffered a backlog of research proposals, and the percentage of grant applications awarded dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2007.

Now, with the injection of stimulus funds, the NIH may choose to fund projects waiting in the pipeline as well as finance new proposals, Casey said.

The two-year window, however, is tight for new proposals to be submitted, approved, and undertaken, said the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Assistant Dean for Research Policy and Administration Dean R. Gallant ’72.

“Certainly, it’s a faster rate of spending than we have had recently, so I can imagine that there would be some challenges,” Gallant said.

NIH grants are usually funded over a period of three or four years.

Gallant also said that added accountability could raise another hurdle.

With President Obama’s emphasis on transparency in spending stimulus money, major recipients of federal funding will now be required to report how they are using their grants.

“There are going to be more reporting requirements associated with the stimulus dollars than we may be used to,” Gallant said, adding that difficulties could arise because the disclosure process is a laborious process. And given the University’s tight budgets, Harvard is currently not hiring more staff to undertake the administrative work.

—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.