Funding cuts for science research hurt labs

Federal funding for science research nationwide failed to keep up with inflation last year, causing research expenditures to decrease for the first time in over two decades.

A survey by the National Science Foundation released earlier this month revealed that federal spending on research and development decreased by 0.1 percent when adjusted for inflation, even though federal funding increased by 2.9 percent to about $30.0 billion. But Yale research grants saw an increase of 4.7 percent in the past year, and total expenditures by universities and colleges on research and development went up by 4.3 percent, according to the study.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health, is responsible for the allocation — to the fields of medical and biological science — of 57 percent of total federal research funding, according to the NSF study.

While Yale scientists said they are worried about the overall federal funding decline, they think the importance of research will ensure its preservation.

Tom Pollard, chairman of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, said biomedical research is one of the most favored appropriations in Congress, but available funds are limited.

“Funds have been dropping fairly precipitously in all government research agencies during the last few years,” he said.

Pollard said he attributes the decline in federal revenue — and the corresponding drop in research funds — to tax cuts and increased military spending in recent years.

Pollard, whose lab is funded by the NIH, said the national decline in federal expenditures for certain types of research has been apparent for some time to those who keep track of appropriations of various federal agencies. The limited funds at the NIH have resulted in small cuts in the grants they allocate.

These decreases have made it difficult for scientists to get grants, said Frank Slack, a principal investigator researching genes involved in the development of cancer. As a result, he said, many scientists have sought other occupations, and for those who remain in academia, time spent on research has declined in favor of grant paperwork and applications.

But Douglas Brash, professor of therapeutic radiology and coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said he think the cuts are the result of government devaluation of research and evidence, which he said affects the nature of scientific research on a wider scale. With decreased money for grants, Brash said there is greater competition among scientists and greater pressure on those who appropriate the funds to select projects that are most likely to show results.

“I fear that we will be bringing up the next generation to be used to doing predictable, risk-free research,” he said. “I think it’s a real long-term danger.”

Still, he said he sees a positive side to the heightened competition.

“The process also selects for the people who are committed, who care enough to take the risks and spend the time [on grants],” he said. “I worry that science is becoming a trade, and that’s not the way great science is done.”

But Pollard said he does not expect the declining trend to continue — the economy’s recovery, the resulting increase in overall federal revenues and the phasing out of many tax cuts will support an upswing, he said.

The proposed federal budget for the 2008 fiscal year also includes a House-endorsed presidential proposal for an 8.7 percent increase in funding for the NSF. This apportionment request — which would bring the NSF budget to about $6.4 billion — is part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, currently in its second year. The ACI is trying to increase funding for science and technology to “sharpen America’s competitive edge,” NSF Director Arden L. Bement, Jr said in the remarks he gave to accompany the Oct. 1 presentation of the budget.

Psychology professor John Dovidio said he recently participated in a Washington, D.C. conference at which members of the scientific community lobbied Congress to increase federal funding for research and development. Since the United States depends on academic research for scientific innovation, he said it is especially important to ensure that funding remain constant regardless of changing political trends.

“This funding is important to the U.S. because academic institutions are the research and development of America,” he said. “They are supposed to be unfettered by politics, in ways that allow us to think about long-term problems.”

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