Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, spoke before the Senate Assembly about maintaining competitive research funding in the face of declining federal funds on Monday.
Forrest cautioned that the looming federal sequestration, which will occur March 1 if deficit-reducing measures are not passed, could affect University efforts to maintain an annual $1.27 billion research budget.
Although sequestration could bring a 5-percent cut across the board to federal research funding, Forrest said any impact on the University budget would not be apparent until early April.
The University has been planning for the congressional sequestration measure because it could affect the federal resources — such as grants from the National Institute of Health — that many University faculty members use to conduct research.
During an Oct. 8 interview with The Michigan Daily, University President Mary Sue Coleman expressed similar concern during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, stressing how crucial the funding is to basic research.
“The value of the federal government is that the federal government funds the basic research that is the beginning of all the others,” Coleman said.
Forrest said University research was important in helping drive the innovation that is crucial to a growing economy, implying that a decrease in research funding could undercut continued economic growth.
“No matter what happens with sequestration, we have been in a period of flat or declining funding for research,” Forrest said. “It is going to be a rough few years.”
Despite a nearly 15 percent decline in federal funding for research over the last decade, the University has increased its research expenditures from roughly $800 million in 2007 to the current level of $1.27 billion.
Forrest said the 2009 federal stimulus package and an increase in University expenditures of its own funds have made this growth in research funding possible, a process funded in part by tuition rate increases.
“This is the place that has the infrastructure,” he said. “That is why we remain extremely competitive.”
He added that a key strength of the University research community is its ability to develop research projects that utilized the resources of many departments at the University. Forrest said these major interdisciplinary research projects, including a $152-million project partnering with NASA to improve its satellite system and a venture on transforming mobility through re-examining our transportation system, were key to the University’s future in research.
“We see this (innovation) as a nucleus of the next Silicon Valley,” Forrest said.
In an interview on Friday, University Provost Phil Hanlon echoed Forrest, saying that cuts in research funding would affect each portion of the university differently.
“There are certainly areas of the University where sponsored research funding is a larger piece of the operating budget,” Hanlon said. “You might say that they’re the ones that are most at risk, but they’re also the ones that benefited the most when the (various research) budgets doubled.”
He added that despite the probable decline in overall funding, the University would make its case to federal officials that the University deserved more of the funding for basic research.
“We certainly will work as hard as we possibly can to make the case for U of M research to be an ever-growing part of the federal pie, so that’s one way that we can react to the shrinking federal budget is to improve our percentage of funding that comes our way,” Hanlon said.
One way the University has tried to offset declines in federal funding are partnerships with private industry. While these partnerships have provided crucial funding for some commercially-viable projects, they are also more targeted and less focused on basic research.
“It’s a small part (but) I think it’s a very important part because industry collaborations can often bring interesting things to the table that you don’t get through federal research funding,” Hanlon said. “I think for example (private industry partnerships provide) internships and opportunities for students to work in an actual industry environment and be recognized for potential future jobs.”
Engineering Prof. Rachel Goldman said with the delicate federal funding situation, the College of Engineering was being more conservative in its fall-semester admission process for graduate students.
Goldman added that a decrease in federal funding would affect her own research lab — in which he employs 10 graduate students in addition to other staff — at the University.
“(It’s) not insignificant, but it wouldn’t shut down my research program,” Goldman said.
Dentistry Prof. Graham Holland said he was happy with the manner in which the University was addressing the decline in federal funding considering all of the recent economic difficulties.
“I would have great confidence in the University,” Holland said. “It has done very well in very difficult circumstances.”
Daily Staff Reporter Jennifer Calfas contributed reporting.