Funding deadlock threatens to drain research money

A stalemate in Congress could dry up the source that provides nearly three-quarters of the University’s outside research funding: federal agencies.

The National Institutes of Health – GW’s largest research benefactor – would take an 8 percent hit if Congress ignores the cuts hanging over federal agencies, according to a Sept. 14 report from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

NIH funds made up nearly half of the $122 million in federal grants and contracts the University in fiscal year 2010, the last year data was available.

Anthony-Samuel Lamantia, director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience, who has racked up $10 million from the NIH over his career, said the grim outlook for the future of federal funding scares him. He added that schools across the University, particularly the medical school, are already asking “what if” questions.

“Everyone’s back is against the wall. The University has been talking about what to do, but they can only do so much,” Lamantia said.

If Congress does not reach a deal by Jan. 2, the NIH would lose about $2.5 billion, and the National Science Foundation, another key source of research funds for GW, would be stripped of $551 million.

Media Credit: Jordan Emont | Assistant Photo Editor

The $1.2 trillion across-the-board cutback in federal funding would drain GW’s grant potential as it tries to edge into the top tier of research institutions. The University collected about nine times the amount of money in federal dollars in fiscal year 2010 than it did from businesses and nonprofits.

Lamantia said the downsizing would make it about 30 percent more difficult for researchers to get funding in an already competitive environment, as there would be fewer funds up for grabs.

The projected cuts to the NSF and NASA could also damage the University’s hopes of boosting research funding as it prepares to move into the Science and Engineering Hall. The $275 million building will, in part, be funded by a jump in outside grants over the next decade.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said last month that each researcher who stakes claim to the sought-after laboratory space in the Science and Engineering Hall must have outside grants. Through a spokeswoman, he did not return requests for comment.

Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said before the report was released that, because the University has hired skilled researchers in recent years, it would be shielded from serious damage.

“We don’t believe research [funding] has fallen off the face of the earth,” Katz said. “There could be some difficult times ahead with what’s going on with the federal budget over the next several years, clearly. In fact, research is a very competitive market, but we are recruiting absolutely world-class researchers at this time.”

But whether cuts come in January or over the years, grant approval will become even more competitive – meaning “people will be spending more time looking for money and less time doing the work,” Lamantia said. At the same time, the funding young researchers rely on to earn tenure and make a living would start to dry up.

Charles Garris, a professor of engineering, worked as a program director for the NSF in the 1990s when the federal government triggered similar cuts. He said, like last time, young researchers would bear the brunt of the cutbacks. Research-granting agencies also set aside separate funds for young researchers.

“The young researchers have a lot of pressure on them, especially as far as tenure and promotion, to bring in grants. If the grants are delayed and they’re unable to bring in grants, it could be adverse for them,” he said. “Obviously, they’re all ferociously trying to build up their research programs, so they need funding to support students.”

NIH grants typically give researchers at least $200,000 a year to study issues ranging from childhood obesity to tuberculosis. One of GW’s largest awards in recent years – $14 million earned by GW’s Biostatistics Center – came from the NIH last month.

The amount of internal research funding the University doled out exploded between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, the last years for which data was available, jumping from $11.1 million to $34.4 million.

Megan Leftwich, an assistant professor of engineering and applied science, started as a University researcher this year, and said the cuts would make it even more difficult for her to nab outside funds. But, she said, she expects GW’s internal research funding for new professors would help cushion the blow.

“I cannot be successful long term without an externally funded research program,” she said. “However, I am at the very beginning of my career and still have University startup money to get established while I secure those funds.”

The federal cuts to engineering research that NASA funds would add insult to injury for the space program, said Andrew Cutler, an engineering professor who specializes in hypersonic flight.

“We are still somewhat shell-shocked from cuts that came the last two years that have almost zeroed the program. NASA’s chief administrator later supposedly admitted that these were a mistake, and we were hopeful something might come back next year,” Cutler said. “Not so likely with sequestration.”

Joy Finneran contributed to this report.

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