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U. announces $5 million emergency research fund

Money will help researchers finish projects if Trump administration cuts science funding

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Hall_ResearchBackstop

Provost Richard Locke announced the creation of a $5 million emergency research fund March 28 that will be used to support research projects if government funding is suddenly cut. In such cases, researchers will be able to apply for access to money from the fund, which will ease the process of closing down those investigations, said Vice President for Research David Savitz, whose office will oversee the fund.

The University created the fund in response to “concern about how precarious research funding is right now, particularly in politically sensitive areas,” Savitz said.

“There have been proposals to dramatically increase funding for defense and homeland security that would come at the expense of funding for agencies that support university-based research,” Locke wrote in an email to The Herald. Sharp cuts into these agencies’ budgets could stop ongoing University research projects, he added.

Although the fund is meant to cover all types of research, investigations in some areas are more prone to be defunded than others, Savitz said. Research in climate change, clean energy, contraception or pregnancy termination and social or behavioral science are all in particular danger of losing funding, Locke wrote in a press release.

Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fund most climate research, said Baylor Fox-Kemper, associate professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. President Trump’s recently proposed budget cuts would, if carried out, make such agencies “incapable of doing their work,” he added.

The amount of money committed to the emergency fund “was based on the volume of research we currently have that is in these vulnerable areas,” Savitz said. The money, which will come from general University reserves, is meant to cover all of the current research that might face sudden cuts in the near future, he added.

The amount of money allocated to researchers will depend on “what’s needed to bring the project to an orderly close,” Savitz said. The money will not be used to complete these projects, but will instead allow them to shut down systematically — ideally in a way that would allow them to restart if funding returns. For example, researchers would need time to archive data for future access, store specimens and pay laboratory assistants for their work, Savitz added.

The University had to create a similar emergency fund during the 2013 government shutdown and budget sequestration so that active projects could continue, Locke wrote, adding that “this (new) program is modeled on that earlier plan.”

But budget changes during that period carried different implications about the allocation of research funding, Savitz said. While 2013 saw a temporary drop in government research funding, researchers now worry about permanent cuts.

“It’s a wonderful thing that we’re in a university that can afford to (provide emergency funds),” Fox-Kemper said. But the fund will not be able to address long-term cuts in funding, and such cuts could do extensive damage to progress in climate research and other fields that are at risk.

But Savitz believes that long-term gradual decreases in funding are “more likely to happen” and “more threatening” than an abrupt cut to resources. To prepare for this threat, the University is working to diversify its funding and seek support from private foundations and corporations.

The budget proposed by the Trump administration demonstrates an unsettling hostility toward climate science — and other sciences — from a government that, until recently, was its most important source of support, Fox-Kemper said, as “virtually all” of his field’s current funding comes from government sources. “I’m worried when non-scientists try to make decisions about what types of science are important,” he said.