Despite the University’s record-high research spending this past fiscal year, researchers are concerned about the future of their projects because of potential funding cuts.
Research expenditures at the University grew 8.5 percent to $1.24 billion this past fiscal year, with a 9.8-percent increase in federal funding accounting for much of the growth. But Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, said the University might see a significant decrease in funding this coming year.
“I think I’m fairly safe in saying that the growth in research funding from the federal government is going to be slowed this year quite considerably,” Forrest said.
For the 2011 fiscal year, federal funds accounted for 66.7 percent of the University’s research spending, according to a Sept. 20 University press release. The National Institutes of Health increased its grant money to the University by 12.6 percent for that year, the National Science Foundation increased its funding by 10.3 percent and money from the Department of Energy increased by 30.4 percent. However, the Department of Defense decreased its funding for the University by 4.9 percent in 2010-2011 compared to the previous year, the press release states.
The University’s future success in receiving federal grants will depend on how competitive the University is and what research areas are being emphasized, Forrest added. He added that researchers at the University have recognized the benefits that their research can provide beyond campus.
“ The faculty at the University of Michigan have been extremely competitive,” he said. “(They) have recognized that one of things that they can do, and they can do well for the country — and particularly the state — is to do good research and create those innovations.”
James Sayer, an associate research scientist at the University Transportation Research Institute, is working on a pilot model for communication devices to increase vehicle-to-vehicle communication and safety. His project was recently awarded $14.9 million, with 80 percent of the funding coming from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Though Sayer said he isn’t concerned that his current project will suffer from a decrease in federal funding, he acknowledged that he is worried about upcoming research endeavors.
“Certainly we’re concerned about other programs that will be happening in the future,” Sayer said.
He added that focusing on environmental sustainability in the future could be a way to receive federal research funds for other projects.
“I think we have the opportunity to see a growth in research funding as a result of increased interest in sustainability,” Sayer said.
Huei Peng, executive director of the University Interdisciplinary and Professional Engineering Programs, said he thinks there is an urgent need to solve sustainability issues, which is why it is such a popular research topic. Peng is working with the U.S. Clean Energy Research Center-Clean Vehicle Consortium — one of three programs recently established by the U.S. Department of Energy — to create cleaner vehicles with smaller environmental blueprints.
The CERC-CVC will receive $12.5 million over the next five years, which will be matched through private funding, for a total of $25 million. But Peng stressed that money is not the most crucial component of a research project.
“The most important thing is the quality of the researchers,” Peng said. “The way to grow our research is not to focus on money.”
Peng said the University’s reputation as a top research institution did help the CERC-CVC and other prominent University initiatives receive the money they needed.
Peng added that even if the federal government makes significant cuts in research spending, he hopes funds for the CERC-CVC will be the last to get cut. He said the work being done by the center is a multi-nation commitment that is important to the global community. He added that he thinks the project will continue regardless of how much money is available.
“We will continue to do top research no matter how much money we got,” Peng said. “If we continue to focus on quality, we will be just fine.”