Scientists fear ‘funding cliff,’ seek new grants

Yale scientists may soon find themselves short of funds and short-staffed as federal stimulus grants dry up in the coming year, eight researchers and University administrators said.

This year, University researchers received over $121 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in Feburary 2009, said Richard Jacob, Yale’s lobbyist. Several researchers interviewed said they have already started the grant-writing process for next year to guarantee funding for their long-term projects and to retain their staff.

Lawrence Rizzolo’s research relies heavily on federal funding.
Lawrence Rizzolo’s research relies heavily on federal funding.

“We have definite concerns about the funding cliff approaching,” said Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology .

Grants from the stimulus package helped fuel an increase of approximately 16 percent in research funding over last year, Jacob said. But the funds have an expiration date: Over 80 percent of the funding Yale researchers received must be spent by September 2011, Jacob said, adding that the few of the remaining grants will last until September 2012.

“From the day we got the money, we worried about the fact that it would all end at once,” said School of Medicine dean Robert Alpern. “[Administrators] are actively going out now, talking to all the investigators to make sure everyone is planning for [the future], so the expiration of funds doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Fifty percent of the school’s approximately $1 billion annual budget comes from research grants, Alpern said in February.

The grant money, which comes from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, was intended in part to keep research efforts afloat despite the recession, he said. The funding helped to preserve, even create, jobs at Yale, he added.

But Alpern said the end of the funding period could make it more difficult for the University to retain its research employees.

“The concern is jobs, and absorbing employees that would lose jobs,” he said.

Four professors interviewed said they could be forced to lay off staff members as grant funding dwindles. Molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Jo Handelsman said she worried about the job security of staff members she hired with stimulus grant money. Handelsman received an grant last summer for studying how microbes in the caterpillar gut model microbes in the human gut, which allowed her to hire several post-doctoral students for her laboratory. The expiration of the grants will force faculty to secure alternate funding if they are to keep commitments to graduate and post-doctoral students.

“Microbiology has been absolutely murdered at the NSF over the past few years,” she said.

Social and educational research will also be especially vulnerable without the cushion provided by stimulus grants, said psychology professor Cindy Crusto, who received a grant for examining the social factors contributing to the health of young children.

“Because social services, prevention, education, and health-related programs are typically among the first to be cut or scaled back, I have a lot of anxiety concerning how to sustain my work,” Crusto said. Crusto added that she spends a significant amount of time writing grant proposals to support her research and her staff after next year.

Still, some administrators and researchers said they are optimistic that the work they accomplished with the stimulus funding will strengthen their case when applying for future funding.

“We see the grants as seed money,” School of Engineering and Applied Sciences dean Kyle Vanderlick said. “It’s a boost that will be very enabling.”

Shrikant Mane, a researcher at the Yale Center for Genomic Analysis on the West Campus, said the approximately $21 million made available for neurogenomics research has been “extremely fruitful” for the laboratories he oversees, resulting in the publication of several papers in high-profile journals.

“We’re hoping that the next round of funding will come as a result of [our recent work],” Mane said. “It’s a cycle.”

Comments