Regents' report shows decline in research funding

By Jackie Miller, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 22, 2015

Research funding for the University has decreased in the past year, with funds declining to $1.31 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, down from the $1.33 billion worth of funding for the 2013 fiscal year.

According to a 2013 research report from the University's Board of Regents, the decreased funding is mostly due to a shortage of federal funds. While the University received 162 more awards in 2014 than in 2013, the combined value of all of the awards decreased from $803,769,222 to $652,481,072, a decline of about 18.8 percent.

These research funds support faculty research and scholarship. In 2013, 2,326 graduate students, 1,237 post-doctoral researchers and many undergraduate students benefitted from the capital.

Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said the research funding is not solely dedicated to the hard sciences, but is also used to fund projects in areas like the social sciences.

Daryl Weinert, the University’s associate vice president for research-sponsored projects, commented on the adjustments of federal funding.

“Overall funding from the federal government for University-based research has been declining for several years,” Weinert said. “Given less funding, many federal agencies have chosen to spread the reduced funding over similar numbers of awards, thus resulting in less funding for each individual award.”

The greater part of this decline is due to a lack of funding from the National Institutes of Health. The University saw a drop of $68 million dollars from the NIH, a 13.4-percent decrease, mostly as a result of diminishing funds after the expiration the short-term grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The drop in funding has heavily impacted Ari Gafni, a University professor of biophysics and biological chemistry. His research had been continuously funded for more than 20 years, but the NIH funding cuts have forced his lab to shrink from 12 to 15 people to two. For this reason, he said, progress in his lab has slowed.

“We are moving, but at a much slower pace and a much smaller scale,” Gafni said.
In general, total federal sponsorship for the University has declined to 57 percent, down from a 61.5-percent sponsorship in 2013. To compensate, non-federal funding increased by 6.25 percent in 2014 for a total of $124.4 million.

Adjustments to federal funding allocation have also been made. Gafni said mission-oriented and less risky proposals tend to be favored over those that might contain more “original” ideas.
“Grants that are more translational work, work which focuses more on approaches which are pragmatic and practical rather than understanding the basic science, are much more frequently reviewed these days. So, the emphasis has also shifted,” Gafni said.

College funds for research have declined nationwide, but the University has fared well compared to other universities. In 2013, the University had the highest research expenditures among public universities nationwide, and was second-highest among all universities.

Funding to the University from both the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA rose by 4.3 percent and 79.7 percent, respectively. This was largely a result of a new, long-term award that will be used to devise a satellite system to improve weather prediction.

Large awards were still granted from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to support the Battery Fabrication and Characterization User Facility, and from the NIH to support research on advanced imaging techniques to assess the effectiveness of cancer therapies.

Gafni said professors who remain funded might still struggle. Since the average amount per award has decreased, more grant proposals must be submitted in order to maintain the same level of funding.

“Even people who are funded find it much more difficult to spend as much time doing the research relative to asking for money and managing the grants,” Gafni said.

Gafni said the situation is also aggravated because the cost for doing research is increasing at a rate greater than that of inflation.

Weinert said the University adopted a multi-pronged strategy in order to maintain a competive edge.

He described a strategy focused on working with peers and national advocacy organizations. He said the University has been working to diversify funds through the development of organizations such as the Business Engagement Center.

Accoring to Weinert, the University has recognized that opportunities lie within developing larger-scale projects in order to strengthen partnerships, as well as within pursuing philanthropic gifts for research, streamlining the proposal process, improving faculty productivity and expanding clinical trials.

In an effort to implement these strategies, he said faculty at the University have increased the amount of proposal submissions by about 2.7 percent and increased the requested dollar value by more than 12 percent.

“The research portfolio at the University, especially the research support that comes from the federal government, has really been a tremendous opportunity for our students as well as our faculty,” Wilbanks said. “At universities, research is closely coupled with education. It not only richly informs what we teach in our classrooms, but also provides opportunities for students at all levels to develop and strengthen crucial thinking skills by participating in research.”

Gafni said research funding by explaining is essential to the University because without funding, students may be driven to go to other places in order to continue their research.

“People who are really needed in science go to other professions,” Gafni said. “At the same time, the feeling is that in other countries, the situation is better. Not in every country, but China, for example. Students go back to China and they get to run big labs and they get a lot of money to do research. There seems to be much more support over there nowadays than here.”