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October 23, 2008

NSF funding: Decline felt here

Federal support for academic science and engineering research and development (R&D) has started to lag behind inflation, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). And that lag is beginning to have an effect at Pitt, despite the fact that the University continues to rank among the top schools in total funding. (See related article, this issue.)

According to preliminary data released recently by the NSF, federal support for academic science and engineering research and development has slowed since the early part of this decade. Moreover, for the last two years for which data are available, federal funding has lagged behind inflation.

NSF reported that federally funded academic R&D expenditures rose 1.1 percent in FY 2007 to $30.4 billion. “After adjusting for inflation, this represents a 1.6 percent decline from 2006 and follows a 0.2 percent decline from the FY 2005 level. A two-year decline in federal funding in constant dollars is unprecedented for this data series, which began in 1972,” the NSF stated in its online Info Brief.

This decline in real dollars concerns Pitt officials. “There is a number increase in dollars, but with inflation factored in, we have to admit, the buying power of what we receive here and what others receive elsewhere is less. That’s a fact,” said George Klinzing, vice provost for Research.

The trend of declining federal research dollars is having short-term, and could have long-term, ramifications for Pitt, Klinzing acknowledged.

“Our faculty are looking other places,” he said. “They’re looking to other federal agencies. They have to sustain their efforts and they know the well is not as deep as it used to be.

“They’re writing more proposals. They’re looking for other opportunities, whether it’s industrial or foundations — whatever is out there. They’re being very aggressive about it.”

Allen DiPalma of the Office of Research said, “I can’t give you a number, but as a rough observation, the amount of foundation, philanthropic and industry proposals that we have seen has really jumped over the past year or two because of the flat-lining of federal money. As Dr. Klinzing pointed out, the real dollars have not increased, even though you see a percentage increase. When you adjust for inflation, one can make the case that’s it’s actually going down. Certainly the purchasing power is going down.”

One consequence of the flat budget is that individual proposals are being rejected for lack of funds, rather than on scientific merit.

“Oh, yes, that happens,” Klinzing said. “There is a certain priority score for proposals and the NSF has raised the bar. That’s due to the declining funding levels.”

Klinzing noted that the Office of Research of the Health Sciences developed a bridge funding program for meritorious proposals that had been rejected by the National Institutes of Health. (See Aug. 31, 2006, University Times.)

“The bridge funding is awarded under very specific guidelines,” Klinzing said. In the Provost’s area, there is no formal process in place for funding. “But if someone has severe difficulty, we will help on a case-by-case basis. We usually craft something with the help of the home school. This is a joint effort: the department, the school and the Provost’s office; we all work together to help if someone really gets behind the eight ball.”

DiPalma, who helps faculty in the proposal process, said, “We do offer faculty some databases where they can make a query based on their interests for some funding opportunities, such as the Community of Science database. That’s not new; we’ve had that for a long time. It’s especially helpful for new faculty who might not have the contacts.”

“Along those same lines,” Klinzing added, “especially for newer faculty, we’ve always had a program to provide seed money for the competitive grant process. The School of Medicine has had the same thing. There’s the School of Medicine and the rest of the University, which the Provost’s office handles, so there are two different pots of money. These are seed funds to provide faculty with money to get initial data and scope out their ideas, so that they can be more competitive when the grant goes to a federal agency, or any other agency for that matter.”

Longer term, officials are concerned about a rippling effect that will cause a brain drain in research as qualified academic scientists look for careers elsewhere.

“That could happen,” Klinzing said. “It could happen that new faculty who get into this decide to go the industrial route. There certainly will be some effect. A researcher might say, ‘I’m going to be affected by these challenges for a quite long time and I don’t want to deal with it.’ So finding other career options certainly is something the younger generation may look into.”

More senior researchers may opt to retire earlier because of this situation, he added.

“Who knows? It will be a dynamic that’s very complex,” Klinzing said. “Predicting just what it’s going to mean nationally, or even here, I don’t have a crystal ball. But it’s fair to say it’s not an easy time for academics to sustain the efforts that they have. We’re concerned, certainly. But everybody’s concerned. Do we have some secret plan? No. We’re trying to help them out as much as we can, but with the resources we have, we’re limited too.”

One thing that isn’t planned is tapping into the University’s endowment, Klinzing said.

DiPalma said, “Here’s the problem with trying to forecast whether the decline trend will go on. We’re under a continuing resolution right now, until probably after the elections.”

A continuing resolution authorizes federal agencies to fund at existing levels until a new appropriations budget is approved.

“This has historically happened,” DiPalma said, “at least from what I’ve seen over the last number of years: The lawmakers cannot decide on the appropriation quick enough. The transmittal we got in an NIH guide said that the continuing resolution would last through early March. It all depends on the lawmakers who get elected and what they can agree on.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 5

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