Trump’s silence on research funding breeds fear among researchers

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Photo Editor

Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said GW will look for grants from corporations and international institutions if federal research grant funding is cut.

Updated: Feb. 2, 2017 at 3:24 p.m.

Researchers are concerned about the uncertainty of federal funding under the new presidential administration.

Researchers across the country are worried after possible cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and silence from President Donald Trump’s administration about how they will handle research funding for large agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Leaders and researchers said they are dependent on federal funding to do their research and will need to explore other grant resources, from corporations or international sources, if there are cutbacks from the government.

Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said he has spoken to both researchers at GW and employees at federal agencies, like the NIH and the NSF, about the concern for securing research funding in the new administration. Although some are fearful, there is not enough information to know what will happen to federal research funding, he said.

“It is unpredictable. I am concerned but I am also hopeful for the best,” he said. “It is too early to say it is going one way or another.”

The University has benefitted from federal research funding: the engineering school alone was expected to bring $3 million in federal subsidies last year. Officials have worked to establish the institution as a leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics research, and the NIH currently funds 150 active grants at GW, according to a NIH database.

But federal funding for research has been up and down. In 2015, when federal funding started to get tight for researchers, Chalupa announced a shift to helping professors and researchers earn funding from international resources. OVPR also embedded more than a dozen staffers in individual schools as a way to support researchers and bring in more grants in 2014.

Researchers were hopeful in the last administration after Congress awarded an additional $2 billion to the National Institutes of Health in an effort to increase funding for medical research. And this past fall, GW researchers earned an all-time high amount of funding after receiving more than $88 million in grants over a three-month period.

Chalupa said researchers could look to private corporations and international sources to replace federal funding if there were cuts.

“But I think ultimately we are going to be okay because we are all in the same boat together,” he said. “The American research enterprise is going to hit bumps but it is really solid. It’s the security of the country. If that gets derailed in a major way, this country is in serious, serious trouble.”

Although Trump has not announced his plans for research funding, there is talk that he could first make cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, said in an email that many faculty and alumni at the Corcoran have received direct and indirect support from the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities, and have contributed to the organization by sitting on review panels or developing programs.

“While the Corcoran does not currently receive any direct funding from the NEA or NEH, any talk of dismantling these remarkable organizations is deeply disturbing,” Sethi said.

Alejandro Villagra, an assistant professor in the Cancer Biology Program and a researcher in the GW Cancer Center, said funding is a constant concern for scientists. Research needs to be a priority for the country but nobody knows what is going to happen, he said.

“We hope that the new administration is going to be smart enough to understand that health and science is not something you can use a political whip on,” Villagra said. “You are not going to ask if cancer is going to kill a Democratic or a Republican. Cancer is attacking everyone the same way.”

Leslie Davidson, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said her research is funded through the Department of Defense. She studies service members’ readiness to return to duty after concussions and other brain injuries.

She said she is personally not concerned about funding because Trump has committed to increasing the defense budget, but said that other researchers in the medical school are worried.

“Many of my peers who work in other areas of research, climate, basic sciences, social sciences, are having a very different conversation,” Davidson said.

Davidson said that if federal grants do get cut, many researchers will need to get creative with philanthropic organizations and industries.

“Any significant federal funding cuts that have an impact on my research will force it to be placed on hold,” Davidson said.

Igor Efimov, a professor and the chair of the biomedical engineering department, said the consequences of cuts to federal research funding would mean that new therapies and breakthroughs in cancer treatment, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders, that are the result of NIH funded initiatives, could be delayed.

“I hope that he knows that it is important to fund NIH but of course many scientists are concerned,” Efimov said. “I am hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”

Trump also issued an executive order for a federal hiring freeze that could impact grant-giving institutions.

Andrew Reschovsky, professor emeritus of public affairs and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the hiring freeze impact both public and private universities, especially big research universities that get substantial amounts of funding through research grants.

“If they have reduced staff and a hiring freeze, it means you don’t fill vacancies, these agencies have to do the same amount of work with fewer people,” Reschovsky said. “They don’t have staff to administer grants, cuts of grants ensue, and the process slows. The freeze doesn’t happen in vacuum. Wait till next month for the budget in order to fully analyze what the greater impact of cuts may be.”

Cort Carlson and Ryan Meneses contributed reporting.

This post has been updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the engineering school expected to bring in $3 million in federal research funding last year. The school was expected to bring in about $3 million in federal subsidies. We regret this error.

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