Despite Record Year, Research Funding Remains 'Huge Challenge'

Researchers across Harvard received a record-high $842.5 million in grants in fiscal year 2016—but some say they are bracing for federal funding cuts under the Trump administration and seeking alternative sources of research support.

While federal funding continued to make up a majority of awards overall, non-federal awards—from sources like foundations and corporations—increased by 14 percent in the past fiscal year, compared to a 3 percent increase in federal funding. And while government-sponsored grants did increase from the previous fiscal year, they again did not reach the levels seen from 2012 to 2014, according to a report released by Harvard’s Office for Sponsored Programs last month.

Federal Funding in Fiscal Year 2016
Non-federal research funding increased by 14 percent in the past fiscal year, compared to a 3 percent increase in federal funding.
According to Vice Provost for Research Richard McCullough, the University has worked to combat the trend of decreasing federal funding by raising money through private partnerships.

“This year we came back up, which was a good sign,” he said. “But it’s still a huge challenge.”

The amount committed by sponsors for future awards was down 3.3 percent in fiscal year 2016, which could indicate a “decreasing future funding stream,” according to the report. The decrease was due almost entirely to declining federal grants.


The decline in federal funding began with sequestration, the wide-ranging budget cuts enacted by the government in March 2013, according to McCullough. University President Drew G. Faust has publicly argued against sequestration, which aims to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget over ten years.

Beyond the impact of sequestration, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said federal funding levels may further decrease as President-elect Donald Trump transitions to power.

“It’s natural to have a concern about federal funding of research whenever there’s a change of administration. And so that’s a concern that we continue to have,” Garber said in an interview last month. “In recent years we have been very much dedicated to broadening our sources of research support.”

Among non-federal funding sources, foundations supplied $146.8 million to Harvard researchers, an 18 percent increase from 2015, while corporations gave $50.2 million, a slight decrease from 2015.

Since Trump’s election in November, science professors and researchers at Harvard have expressed concerns that his administration will cut federal funding to programs, especially those focused on climate change. Daniel E. Lieberman, who chairs Harvard’s Human Evolutionary Biology department, said that while his department is preparing for a “worst case scenario,” science research has been moving towards private funding for years.

“When Congress many years ago cut off funding for stem cell research, we basically had to go private. And I think that might serve as a model for a lot of research,” he said. “We’re going to think about having to do that if we want to remain a premier research institution.”

While McCullough also said that federal funding levels could fluctuate, he said he believes there is bipartisan support for basic research.

In the event of decreased federal funding, partnerships with corporations are one alternate source of revenue. McCullough said that corporate sponsorships are “very standard among universities,” and that the corporations have no claim on the intellectual property produced by researchers.

“We have a number of policies that are intended to preserve academic freedom by putting constraints on requirements that corporations might wish to impose on that research,” Garber said. “And we’ve had very very good experiences with corporate research agreements.”

Lieberman, however, said that he is wary of corporate sponsorships because they can “raise questions” about conflicts of interest.

In fiscal year 2016, the majority of Harvard’s research grants continued to come from public institutions. The National Institutes of Health, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, was the University’s largest federal funding source, supplying Harvard researchers $415 million. The National Science Foundation contributed the second highest level of federal funding, providing $54.9 million. Both agencies increased their funding levels from the previous year.

The Department of Defense also provided $53.7 million, contributing 9 percent of Harvard's total federal funding.

“Federal funding has played and will continue to play an essential role,” Garber said.

In terms of academic fields, $407 million, 48 percent of total sponsored expenditures, went to the life sciences, while $3 million—less than 1 percent—was allocated to the humanities, according to the report.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.