Tight federal budget may restrict research

Cuts in federal funding expected in the coming year may limit some of Yale’s most cutting edge scientific research.

Government funding is expected to decrease for research and development at scientific institutions across the county in fiscal year 2006 as a result of cuts made by President Bush’s administration in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. Yale researchers said the cuts — which will impact the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, among other federal bodies — will likely reduce the number of staff their laboratories can hire and put more pressure on University scientists to apply for grant money.

The Energy Department’s Office of Science provides over 40 percent of the nation’s total funding for basic research in the physical sciences, and is a major source of funding for physical sciences research at Yale. This year, the research and development in the Office of Science will fall 4.5 percent to $3.2 billion and that the entire research and design budget for the Energy Department will decline by 2.6 percent to $8.4 billion, according to a funding update on the department’s fiscal year 2006 budget published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The only field that will not suffer under the spending cuts is energy-related research that focuses on alternative energy sources such as hydrogen, fuel cells, nuclear energy and coal research and development.

Although the Energy Department has told its labs around the country to expect less money for research, Congress has not yet finalized spending cuts proposed by Bush’s administration, said Jeff Sherwood, a spokesman for the department. No particular research institutions were singled out for cuts, he said.

“We don’t have a final budget for this year so we don’t know what the numbers will be when all is said and done,” Sherwood said.

“The cuts are in the context of simply a difficult time,” he said, “not based on quality of research.”

Yale’s Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory — which houses research programs in nuclear structure and nuclear astrophysics — obtains most of its funding from the Energy Department.

Physics professor Peter Parker, whose lab is in WNSL, said federal committees review all labs receiving funding each year. Parker said between 70 and 95 percent of federal grant money goes toward paying students, post-doctorate researchers, staff and faculty. The remaining balance, he said, is used to pay for equipment, travel expenses and laboratory supplies, and any cuts in funding can have a serious impact.

“How you manage just depends on what you can do,” said Parker, “We try to make cuts in other areas, but after a while, it affects how many students you can take on.”

Though the University’s labs in the biological sciences receive a small amount of funding from the Energy Department, the majority comes from other sources, including the NIH and the National Science Foundation.

John Wysolmerski, an associate professor at the School of Medicine who studies hormone regulation in fetal development, said between 80 and 90 percent of his funding comes from the NIH, which have funded between 25 and 30 percent of all institutions requesting support in the past. But in recent months, funding levels have fallen across the board to about 15 percent, he said.

“In times like this, when there are large federal budget deficits and the administration doesn’t want to raise taxes, science budgets suffer,” Wysolmerski said.

In light of the funding cuts, researchers will probably spend more time writing proposals to obtain grant money and waiting to hear back from the federal government, Wysolmerski said. It can now take up to two years to apply and reapply for grants, which could impede new research, he said.

“It makes it discouraging for young people who need to obtain new funding and retain it in order to get promoted,” said Wysolmerski, “Those who are renewing their grants have the competitive advantage.”

Wysolmerski, like Parker, said the majority of his research activities depend on federal funding. Funding for biological research without medical applications often comes from the National Science Foundation, while other sources of money for biomedical research include private organizations such as the American Cancer Society. Groups like these are also tightening budgets because of economic strain, Wysolmerski said.

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