Here is an article I just wrote for Isthmus, a Madison, WI, weekly newspaper. WHERE HAS ALL THE RESEARCH GONE? Federal Cuts Threaten Research at UW-Madison. This situation isn’t confined to Madison. It’s easy to take the benefits we all receive from scientific research for granted, but we do so at our peril.
University of Wisconsin researchers are laying the groundwork to make it possible to “print” new transplant-ready organs, grown from cells cultured from a patient’s blood sample. This project, which merges research in biotechnology and nanotechnology, is under way today thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Over at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, scientists are developing improvements to the electrical distribution grid that will seamlessly integrate renewable and traditional energy sources. The research is being done thanks to Department of Energy funding for the Power Systems Engineering Research Center.
Just a short walk over to the chemistry department, researchers are addressing the threat that strains of harmful bacteria present as they become increasingly antibiotic-resistant. What they are learning may become a next-generation line of defense against serious infections. This promising research is also being funded by the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
But ongoing federal research funding cuts could turn the lights off in these university labs. The jeopardy is real because of the Budget Control Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Across-the-board federal spending cuts known as budget sequestration took effect March 1, 2013, and slashed 5%, or $1.55 billion, of the annual NIH budget alone. The NIH is the primary federal agency charged with conducting and supporting biomedical and behavioral research.
Similar cuts affected other funding agencies, and ongoing reductions of as-of-yet-unknown and varying amounts are targeted for budgets through 2023. Approximately 640 fewer competitive NIH research project grants were issued in 2013 to universities, medical schools and other research institutions across the nation as a result, and UW-Madison has taken its share of the pounding. In 2009-10 the campus received $798 million in federal research awards. In 2012-13 that amount had shrunk to $620.4 million.
“There is a definite change in research funding,” says Michael Corradini, director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute. “There is still opportunity, but it requires more proposals and a lot of discussion on the phone, even visiting Washington to get the funding to start or continue your research program. Success divided by all your attempts is low.”
Supporting graduate education
Research expenditures at UW-Madison total more than $1 billion annually. The money is spread throughout the campus. In addition to funding individual research projects, it supports some core research facilities that bring together expensive technology, like high-end imaging microscopes and clean-room facilities that would be outside the reach of any individual lab. “It’s an efficient way to provide expertise and equipment to many research teams without having to duplicate,” says Marsha Mailick, vice chancellor for research and graduate education.
“Research extends beyond the sciences,” says Mailick. “It includes scholarship in the arts and humanities as well as the social sciences, biological and physical sciences. And while the funding streams for each area are different, the growing difficulty over securing funding is a shared concern.”
The biological sciences rely heavily on funding from the NIH and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Physical sciences rely on the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies such as the departments of Defense and Energy. Many social sciences rely on federal dollars from the Department of Education, NIH and the National Science Foundation. Some of the social sciences and humanities have less access to large federal granting programs.
“Because of the sequester, all of those federal agencies have lowered their funding levels enormously,” says Mailick. “The biggest impact of the sequester comes in areas where there was the greatest success in federal funding in the past, and this is now creating the greatest gap in the capacity of this university to conduct research.”
Mailick is worried about how cuts today will diminish not just the university, but the wider community. “This affects so many areas of our society and so many things we all care about.
“We have the Internet today because of research done several decades ago. We have federal policies about water quality and air pollution because of studies that were done here and elsewhere that led to our understanding of how to preserve our natural resources. We have diseases in the history books like polio that no longer threaten our communities.
“We have a great deal to learn about disorders such as autism. We need to understand healthy aging so we can look to our later years in good health,” says Mailick. “Underlying all of these questions is the need to support research.”