Research spending surges even as federal budgets decline

Media Credit: Nick Rice | Hatchet Visual Director

Professors spent 10.8 percent more outside dollars on research last semester, blasting past last year’s totals as the University builds momentum before the openings of its science, engineering and public health buildings.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa announced Friday that researchers spent about $82.7 million in the first half of fiscal year 2014, which started in July. The growth comes even as the pool of federal dollars for research – by far GW’s largest source of grants – shrinks.

“The thing to recognize here is this is a time when the government shut down and the sequester happened,” Chalupa said. “This is a great testament to our faculty.”

The University has bet big on transforming itself to attract grants. It is set to open research-intensive buildings worth $350 million in the next year, with plans to spend more than $100 million for faculty hires and research centers over the next decade.

That has made research expenditures a key way that administrators and trustees measure the University’s progress. It’s also how the National Science Foundation ranks research universities, putting GW at No. 103 in the country last month for the 2012 fiscal year – behind nine of the 14 schools the University considers its peers.

As of last fiscal year, GW still hadn’t gotten back to 2010 levels of research spending, when Chalupa said professors reaped the benefits of the federal stimulus plan that pumped money into agencies. The University counted $164.5 million in expenditures that year, about $2 million more than last year.

Over the past year, the Office of the Vice President for Research has also launched a website that makes it easier for professors to track grants and added “boot camps” for research preparation. Faculty have long griped that the University’s systems and technology for research are outdated.

For instance, Aleksandar Jeremic, an assistant professor of biology, said a lack of the newest technology continues to make it more difficult for GW researchers to get grants.

But Chiara Manzini, an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology, came to GW this summer and said the strengthening research support system attracted her to the University. She received a $747,000 grant this summer to continue studying the causes of autism and other mental disabilities.

“I think the [Office for the Vice President of Research] has really made a big effort into helping researchers, identify funding opportunities and working with them to make sure that the grants that go in are the best grants that they can put in,” she said.

She also touted the mentorship program at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which pairs up veteran faculty members to help newer researchers apply for top grants.

Manzini is one of dozens of research-focused faculty recently hired in the fields of medicine, public health, science and engineering. The School of Public Health and Health Services alone has hired 37 full-time faculty members since July 2010.

The University is looking for those hires to fill laboratories in the new buildings across campus, and bring in outside grants that also earmark money that goes directly to the University, called indirect cost recoveries.

Forrest Maltzman, senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said the new hires over the last several years have begun to pay off.

“It depends what stage you hire somebody in, but when you hire a new [doctoral student] or somebody coming in, it normally takes them a few years to get their research program ramped up,” Maltzman said.

The majority of GW’s grants last year again came from the National Institutes of Health, which mostly dishes out funding to medical researchers at the University, while researchers in other fields such as social sciences have turned to corporations and foundations to make up for the lack of national funds.

Foundations and corporations typically do not give as much money to cover building and maintenance costs though, instead giving the professor full control over the grant. That could spell trouble for GW, which is counting on a $55 million increase in indirect cost recoveries over the next eight years to help pay for the most expensive building in its history, the Science and Engineering Hall.

But that amount of money barely budged last year, as indirect cost recoveries grew by only 0.7 percent despite total research spending growth of 7.3 percent.

Some universities do not accept those grants without more substantial indirect cost recoveries, Chalupa said.

“They don’t take that money, they play hardball. We take everything right now, because I don’t want to tell a faculty member you can’t have this half a million dollars,” Chalupa said.

This post was updated Jan. 13, 2014 to reflect the following clarification:
The Office of the Vice President for Research did not provide the exact total of research dollars for the first half of 2014, just the percentage increase over the previous year. That total, however, could be tabulated using public Faculty Senate minutes.

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