Fiscal cliff looms over sciences

Levin's life after Yale an open question

If Washington fails to extend some form of tax breaks and automatic cuts to a slew of government agencies and programs, the United States will tumble off what has been termed a “fiscal cliff” starting on Jan. 1.

President Barack Obama has signaled that avoiding such a scenario is a top priority, as economists predict that the fiscal cliff could throw the U.S. economy back into recession. Nearly one in every five dollars of Yale’s revenue comes from federal institutions whose budgets would plummet off the fiscal cliff. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provided 83 percent of Yale’s federal research dollars in fiscal year 2012, would see an 8.2 percent cut on Jan. 1.

The NIH said in a statement to the News that the potential cuts would be “deeply destructive” to ongoing and future science research nationwide and should be avoided. Though Yale, like its peer schools, has a long-standing practice of financially supporting investigators who have temporarily lost grant funding, increased demand for external funding has put a strain on researchers across the country.

While Yale research may weather the potential cuts, the increasing scarcity of federal grants has forced some faculty to scale back their ambitions.

“I think we are all terrified,” said Chris Cotsapas, assistant professor of neurology and genetics at the Yale School of Medicine. “If I don’t bring money in, then I can’t pay the people in my lab, and I can’t pay my salary. It’s kind of that simple.”

TOUGH CLIMATE MADE WORSE

Like researchers at most medical schools across the country, faculty at the Yale School of Medicine raise almost their entire salaries and lab funding from external sources such as the NIH, the school’s Dean Robert Alpern said. As a result, the potential cuts to these funding institutions have some researchers at the medical school worried about the future of their labs.

Cotsapas said he joined the School of Medicine two years ago in an “already challenging” funding climate, and the looming fiscal cliff has the potential to make matters even worse. Despite a 49 percent increase in the NIH’s funding budget from 2001 to 2011, higher demand for research dollars has greatly increased competitiveness for grants, he said.

The potential cuts from the fiscal cliff have already had an impact on the Cotsapas Lab, which investigates the genetic cause of disease in the immune system and the brain. For instance, Cotsapas said he wanted to hire five or six more researchers for his lab this year, but ended up hiring only three.

The shifting funding climate has also had a significant impact on how Cotsapas approaches the grant application process. While he said he would like to spend less time crafting grants, Cotsapas tries to write four to six a year because the chance that strong grants will be accepted has become increasingly slim in recent years. He has also started asking everybody in his lab to write at least one grant proposal a year — an activity which he said takes away from research time.

Alpern said the medical school will have to slow research operations if it receives fewer grants.

While faculty at the School of Medicine have to raise almost their entire salaries from external sources, those at Yale College rely much less heavily on grants. Most faculty members receive the equivalent of nine months of their salary from the University spread out over the calendar year for their teaching duties. Professors are left to raise the remaining three months’ pay from grants, said Associate Provost for Science and Technology Timothy O’Connor. Assistant professor of chemistry Jason Crawford said he is not fixated on the potential funding cuts but rather on continuing to pursue his research agenda.

“I personally don’t spend the time worrying about a fiscal cliff,” he said. “In the end, if we are doing the best science that we can, we’ll be able to push forward as long as it is the strongest science that we can do.”

Institutions that rely heavily on federal grants may feel the cuts more acutely than other schools, O’Connor said. In fiscal year 2011, total grants and contracts constituted approximately 24 percent of revenue at Yale, a relatively large portion compared to other Ivy League schools. Only Brown University, at 25 percent, relied more heavily on grants.

Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department Chair Ronald Breaker said he is confident that Yale would continue to be competitive for grants because it recruits the top researchers from around the world. But even institutions with top faculty will feel the fiscal cliff’s effects, he added.

A BRIDGE TO SUSTAINABILITY

In any funding climate, most research programs encounter difficulty in raising funds, Breaker said. Research programs in the biological sciences are especially vulnerable to these temporary lapses, which can harm delicate organisms and set research back by a decade or more, he said.

Breaker said that if a faculty member experiences difficulty raising grant support for research, many departments have “bridge funds” that allow research to continue while the investigator secures external funding. If the department is unable to help the researcher, faculty members often turn to the Provost’s Office for support.

The Provost’s Office does not have a formal policy regarding bridge support and evaluates each researcher’s request on a case-by-case basis. O’Connor said a successful candidate for bridge funding is a well-established research program that has temporarily lost external funding but presents a strong plan for restoring it.

Even if the need for bridge funds increases because of the fiscal cliff, O’Connor said the University will continue supporting programs with future plans to secure grants. Yale has no set allocation of funds for bridge programs. He added that his office has begun informal planning about an institutional policy regarding bridge support.

Bridge funding is a common practice at Yale’s peer schools. Brown’s Provost Office, like Yale’s, has no fixed allocation of funds for bridge support, Brown Provost Mark Schlissel said.

Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs said in an email that the university is concerned about the fiscal cliff’s potential impact on funding. Cornell has a “modest pool” of resources to provide bridge support for faculty, he said, and, like Yale, will not permanently sustain research that has lost grant support.

Geology and Geophysics postdoctoral researcher Peter Driscoll said he does not think he can rely on his department for more research funding when his fellowship expires at the end of the academic year because it would rather bring on new researchers than extend his position. Driscoll said the department did not provide additional research funds to a colleague whose grant recently ended, contributing to his departure from the University.

“That could be me nine months from now,” he said.

While Yale must support its graduate students in any funding climate, Breaker said the University has much less of an obligation to postdocs and support staff.

Cotsapas said he knows there is a limit to how long the University can sustain any lab struggling for support.

“If I can’t get funding at the level that makes my lab self-sustaining, then I’ll have to resign my position and go do something else,” he said.

AN ERA OF CONSERVATIVE RESEARCH? 

Even if Yale continues to pull in grant money and support struggling faculty through bridge grants, many researchers and administrators have expressed concerns that the current funding climate and the potential fiscal cliff have shifted the mentality of scientific research for the worse.

The lack of funding and potential for greater cuts have tempered the research ambitions of many of his peers, Cotsapas said. Many of the grant proposals with the highest potential for profound scientific breakthroughs are those that carry the highest risk for failure and are rejected when federal research dollars tighten up. As a result, researchers propose less ambitious projects that are more likely to succeed, Cotsapas said.

O’Connor said the looming cliff has intensified his preexisting fears about the effect of limited funding on training future scientists. Less money threatens undergraduate research, graduate student support and postdoctoral training and, by extension, budding scientists’ abilities to pursue future research, he said.

Breaker said he becomes most frustrated when the scarcity of federal research dollars interrupts not only strong faculty research programs but also delicate thesis research that graduate students must complete to further their careers.

The future of science research is not all “doom and gloom,” Cotsapas said, as long as money still flows through labs and important science continues.

“The research enterprise has not yet ground to a halt,” he said. “It’s just creaking ominously at this point.”

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