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U. faces drop in research funding

Life sciences hit especially hard by lack of external funding as national economy struggles

External research funding to the University declined by about 17 percent in the fiscal year 2013, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 said in a faculty meeting last week. Though total grant volume has fallen by 20 percent since 2011, Schlissel said it has increased by almost 7 percent so far in fiscal year 2014, The Herald reported at the time.

Scientific research in areas such as biology, medicine and public health has been hit especially hard, Schlissel said. Investigators in these disciplines are primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, he added.

The drop in funding is a “significant decrease,” Schlissel said.

For academics, the dearth of funding translates to a slowing in research, decreased acceptances for graduate students and fewer published papers, Schlissel said.

There is a “need to take seriously the decline and develop strategies for understanding how it came about,” said David Savitz, vice president for research.

To address the funding problem, the University is currently recruiting a new director of research development and support services, who would help researchers identify and apply for funding for which they are competitive, Savitz said.


An ailing economy

Research at the University is “definitely being harmed” because “without external support, research projects are either not able to proceed or not able to get started,” said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty.

The types of research reliant on external support often contribute to society as a whole, McLaughlin added.

The drop in funding can be largely attributed to the ailing economy, McLaughlin, Schlissel and Savitz all said.

But Schlissel said he is “confident that it will come back up again as the economy recovers.”

The expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 took an especially significant toll on University research, Savitz said. The act, which was intended to stimulate the economy after the 2008 recession, included more federal funding for research. When the bill expired, the University experienced a drop in funding as a result, Savitz said.

“That rippled its way through not just Brown, but all university research,” Schlissel said. But, he added, “I fear that we were down more than our Ivy League peers.”

Researchers may also not be submitting as many grant proposals, contributing to the drop in externally funded research, Savitz said. Researchers must submit many proposals in order to successfully receive grants, but due to grants’ high denial rates, it is easy for some researchers to become discouraged and stop sending submissions. Savitz cited the NIH’s 10 percent proposal acceptance rate as an example.

“It is extremely difficult for young scientists to garner initial funding,” wrote James Morgan, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, in an email to The Herald. He added that when he started working as a researcher 30 years ago and was applying for grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Development, a part of the NIH, about 20 percent of grants were accepted. But the acceptance rate had dropped to 5 percent by fiscal year 2013.


‘Adapting and catching up’

Researchers’ current goal is to get as much of the “shrinking pie” of funding as they can, Schlissel said. The administration is encouraging University researchers to write more grant proposals in order to increase their chances of receiving funding, he said.

To stay competitive with peer institutions, researchers must adapt to the changing culture of grant submissions, Savitz said.

Both Schlissel and Savitz said there is a national trend of grants being awarded to larger, group proposals with multiple investigators. In general, Brown researchers are still “adapting and catching up a little bit relative to our peers” in this arena of funding, Savitz said.

This lag could be due to Brown’s small size compared to that of other peer research institutions, Schlissel said.

Once named, the new director of research development and support services will help researchers apply for these larger, collaborative grants.

“If we can make the development of these proposals a little bit less daunting, we will have more faculty who are willing to take a lead in pursuing them,” Savitz added.

But Morgan wrote that he is concerned these big projects that “attract a constitutency” may “drown out small competitors, regardless of their worthiness.”

Researchers could also garner more external funding by seeking financial support from sources other than the NIH and NSF, such as the Department of Energy or the Department of Defense, Savitz said. And researchers could benefit from corporate funding “when that aligns with the research mission at Brown,” he added.

Despite the low level of external support, the University continues to hire new laboratory scientists and staff members, Schlissel said at the faculty meeting, The Herald reported.

Junior faculty members are provided with start-up funds when they are hired by the University, which accounts for the steadily increasing number of lab personnel, McLaughlin said. These beginning packages are made up entirely of University dollars, he added, and are given with the assumption that new faculty members will begin to find external support after settling in.

The University has tapped into reserves to provide “bridge funds” to some researchers to allow them to continue their work during periods of low external funding, McLaughlin said.


-With additional reporting by Isobel Heck


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