A month after Congress passed a budget easing federal research funding cuts that had gone into effect in early 2013, Harvard administrators said last week that while research prospects may be looking up, the future remains uncertain for scientific research.
“They all will say there has never been a more exciting time to pursue science, and at the same time, there is a time of concern about support from the federal government and other sources to pursue that work,” said Kevin Casey, Harvard’s associate vice president for public affairs and communications and the University’s top lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
In January, Congress passed a budget package that provided some relief from the effects of sequestration for the 2014 fiscal year. Casey said that “even with this budget deal, we have not returned to where we before.”
Sally J. Rockey, deputy director of extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, agreed, saying that the decline in research funding is “quite difficult for organizations like Harvard, while the NIH budget is flat and the cost of research continues to rise.”
Between 1998 and 2003, the NIH budget more than doubled, growing from about $13 billion to about $27 billion. Since 2010, however, the budget has fluctuated between about $27 billion and $31 billion. In 2013, the NIH had the lowest grant success rate in history and lost $1.5 billion due to sequestration cuts.
Casey said that NIH funding “comprises over 70 percent of the federal research base at Harvard and a larger percentage at the School of Medicine and School of Public Health.”
From 2012 to 2013, Harvard Medical School lost $19.3 million in federal expenditures and the Harvard School of Public Health lost $8.2 million. Harvard received more than $650 million in federal research sponsorship in FY 2012, before sequestration took effect.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said that “for Harvard as an institution, the consequences are varied.”
Researchers across the school are constantly struggling to find sources of funding, administrators said.
“All of the researchers are spending a much higher percentage of their time writing grants in order to keep their work,” Casey said.
Constantly searching for funding has detracted from the ability to perform research, he added. And funding from outside sources may not be sufficient to replace NIH funding.
New sources of funds, such as from technology and pharmaceutical companies, have shifted the focus of scientific research. But Garber said that the new shift to applied sciences has left researchers concerned about basic research.
In addition to repercussions for faculty researchers, the decline in research funding has experts worried about students’ ability to pursue research.
“It’s an issue that we see at every level—it’s an issue for undergraduate students, it’s an issue for grad students, it’s an issue for postdocs,” Garber said.
While Garber also said that “we still do have a large number of incredibly talented students who decide to pursue careers in science,” experts worry that the daunting task of finding research funding is deterring young scientists from careers in research.
Despite competing priorities on Capitol Hill, Rockey said that she hopes that the importance of scientific research for public health and the economy will encourage “some sustained growth of the NIH budget in the future.”
—Staff writer Steven H. Tenzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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