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With Federal Cuts Looming, University Researchers Say Outlook Is Gloomy

By Nicholas P. Fandos and Nikita Kansra, Crimson Staff Writers

Part I of a two-part series examining how the looming cuts in federal funding could impact research at Harvard. Part II ran on Feb. 26.

Without a deal to avert unprecedented federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect Friday, research institutions including Harvard could be days away from the most damaging reduction of research funding in recent memory.

The cuts—projected to be $85 billion from the federal balance sheets this fiscal year alone—are as unparalleled in scope as the problem, a $900 billion yearly federal deficit that Congress has forced itself to plug. As lawmakers warn of the threat such a deficit poses to federal government’s financial integrity, researchers and administrators at Harvard warn that what they call indiscriminate and poorly timed cuts could jeopardize the flow of new scientific ideas and those who generate them at a time when the economy stands to benefit from them more than ever.

In total, the automatic cuts to all federal programs, better known as sequestration, are slated to progressively trim $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. After years of flat funding and increased demand for federal sponsorship, the University’s researchers, investigators, and administrators say the cuts, if enacted, will cast a long shadow over research at Harvard, where individual labs from the Medical School to the Faculty of Art and Sciences received approximately $650 million in federal monies during the 2012 fiscal year.

Some agencies have already reduced grant totals in advance of the cuts, forcing labs across the University to proactively trim costs and refocus their research. At the same time, administrators have begun the process of reorienting the way the University solicits funding.

“The bottom line for us is that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what will happen if sequestration goes into effect,” University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said in an interview last week. “We expect regardless of whether Congress averts the fiscal cliff or not, that there will be serious long-term cuts in research spending, in real terms and in nominal terms.”

DANGLING OVER THE CLIFF

Lawmakers originally passed sequestration into law as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 in an effort to force themselves to address the growing debt by the end of 2012. Though a last-minute tax deal on January 1 temporarily postponed that deadline until March 1, the effect of the sequester will be much the same: across-the-board cuts to federal programs from Medicare to the Department of Defense.

Given that academic institutions like Harvard currently depend on the federal government for approximately 60 percent of funding for research and development, the threat of sequestration looms large.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the two largest sources of research funding for Harvard investigators, could each face immediate cuts of 5 percent, the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year alone. The United States Department of Defense, the third largest University funding source, could experience cuts of 7 percent.

While 16 percent of the University’s overall operating revenue during the 2012 fiscal year came from federal sponsorship, certain schools like the School of Public Health, the Medical School, and various departments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, rely more heavily on federal funds. University leaders have actively taken steps to lobby in Washington and administrators on campus representing each school are looking to shore up the funding they do have and explore new sources of funding from the private sector.

Dean of the School of Public Health Julio Frenk said these blunt cuts could jeopardize the continuity and robustness of scientific research.

“Health research cannot be turned on or off by a spigot,” he said.

Fifty-five percent of the School of Public Health’s operating budget in FY 2012 came from government sponsorship, more than any other school at Harvard.

Immediately behind the School of Public Health, the Medical School drew 34 percent of its operating budget last year from federal funding, primarily from the NIH and NSF.

Within FAS, the effect of cuts will vary from department to department, with the biology and physics departments being hit harder and the humanities largely remaining unscathed.

Though specific details are unclear, both the NIH and NSF have said they expect to reduce award amounts for existing multi-year grants and significantly cut the number and amount of future grants, most likely to the tune of approximately 1,000 fewer grants a year, according to the most recent White House advisory.

Because the NIH announced late last year that it was withholding 10 percent of the promised award amount for all grants in advance of the possible sequester, many researchers have already begun to feel the pinch of the cuts.

That sharp reduction in grant numbers is expected to reduce already low award rates in the NIH and NSF to 14 and 16 percent respectively, according to a report by Research!America—an organization that advocates for research funding.

Even if sequestration does not occur, Harvard administrators are still gearing up for what many believe will be inevitable budget cuts.

“There is general agreement that whatever happens with sequestration, the profile for research funding from the federal government is going to be a different one going forward,” University President Drew G. Faust said.

SHUTTING DOWN THE PIPELINE

Though the numbers are most striking at the University level, individual labs and researchers will bear the brunt of the cuts as competition for grants becomes more difficult and awards shrink in size.

In September 2012, Medical School biologist Robin E. Reed announced that her lab had discovered a long-sought-after link between spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That finding, which came after five years of basic research on a protein related to ALS, has the potential break the field wide open, Reed said.

But like dozens of her colleagues at the Medical School and thousands more around the country feeling the impact of shrinking federal funding, Reed finds herself increasingly on the sidelines, spending less time in the laboratory and more than ever before writing grants to try maintain her piece of the funding pie.

“I have an idea, and I think it’s a good one, but I simply don’t have the money to pursue it,” Reed said. “Before you would write a grant and get a decent amount of money so you could do work. Now you have to spend a lot of time just writing grants, and that’s not a productive use of my time.”

“On the one hand, the public says cure this awful disease, and on the other hand, they won’t even give us enough money to even buy the reagents,” she added.

Though Harvard researchers will likely weather the cuts better than others because of the high caliber of their work, assistant professor of both computer science and biology David D. Cox ’00 said the overall reduction of funds will mean that both funding agencies and researchers will become more conservative with the grant money they do have.

In advance of potential cuts, researchers have sought to minimize some of the losses at the lab level by cutting staff and spending more frugally on expensive chemicals and equipment.

“I just think it’s having a major impact in every area. Labs are shrinking. Money is dried up, so I can’t imagine it drying it up any more,” Reed said.

While private industry and charitable foundations are willing to put up dollars for applied, late-stage research, federal sponsorship has traditionally provided for early-stage, basic inquiry. Researchers said they worry that federal agencies like the NIH and NSF will begin funding a larger number of applied research or basic projects that seem to be sure bets, leaving traditional basic research projects underfunded.

“Sometimes the benefits that you get from basic research are much, much broader, much more broadly applicable, and they are more of a public good,” Garber said. “Some of the most fundamental breakthroughs in areas like treatment of diseases come from basic research.”

Scientists who conduct basic research said that it often yields big breakthroughs that lay the groundwork for applied technologies, medical treatments, and drugs that drive industry. Once basic research dries up, they said, applied research will follow.

“In academia, we are the ones who can take longterm views, and basically do the sort of fundamental science even when it’s not clear what the payoff will be,” said Cox, a former Crimson design editor. “So if you take that pipeline and you stall it...it’s going to have a huge adverse effect on the economy.”

A LOST GENERATION

The threat to basic research affects not only the output of scientific ideas but also the output of scientists themselves. Basic research is the bread and butter of University-based scientific inquiry, and as it shrinks, so will the ranks of the academy.

“The pipeline of scientific breakthroughs also depends on the pipeline of talent,” said Medical School Executive Dean of Research William W. Chin flanked by prominent Massachusetts politicians and health researchers at a rally in mid-February. “Its flow cannot be turned down without long-term consequences. A generation of scientists could be lost in a period of profound funding reduction.”

Researchers, young and old, said the problem facing young scientists is two-fold. Because better-established labs tend to have a more proven track record, they are likely to get a greater share of support from increasingly conservative funding agencies looking more and more toward results. Consequently, junior faculty trying to establish new labs can expect to have a harder time getting funded.

Universities like Harvard offer seed money to promising scientists to get their research off the ground, said Cox, whose interdisciplinary lab is less than a year old. But that money does not last forever and securing grants to replace it in a stagnant funding climate can be difficult.

“I think everybody’s feeling pressure. It’s a slightly terrifying time to be starting out in research because the long term prospects are very uncertain,” Cox said. He explained that he currently has five different NSF proposals under consideration, whereas usual circumstances might warrant two.

But for many, particularly those still in graduate school or in post-doctoral fellowships, the prospects are more perilous. Federal cuts over the next decade could, researchers said, be enough to push this young talent away from academic research.

Whether those young scientists move abroad to emerging research hubs in Beijing or Berlin, or leave the field altogether, University researchers worry about the long-term effects on their fields.

“These sequestration cuts, without being too overly dramatic, could be the next step on what many have been predicting over the last half dozen years as the loss of an entire generation of brilliant scientists,” said Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Jeffrey D. Macklis. “As a senior investigator, who has a reputation in the field and can be successful in getting grants from multiple sources, I can buffer myself through this storm, but there are incredibly talented young investigators who are just being denied the ability to get started.”

—Sabrina A. Mohamed and Samuel Y. Weinstock contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at nicholasfandos@college.harvard.edu. You can follow him on Twitter @npfandos.

—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at nikitakansra@college.harvard.edu. You can follow her on Twitter @NikitaKansra.

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