Proposed research budget criticized

Republicans are not the only ones disappointed by President Barack Obama’s Tuesday federal budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year — universities and faculty members across the country have also directed their ire at the proposal’s suggested spending levels.

The proposal is an ambitious, $3.9 trillion blueprint for a variety of progressive changes, including revisions to the national tax code and a push to expand pre-kindergarten education to more students. But to the chagrin of universities and researchers, the proposal does little to increase federal funding for scientific research, as it suggests a 0.7 percent increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget — not enough to keep pace with inflation.

“Most of the medical-based research in the U.S. is funded by NIH, and thus when the NIH is hit by budget cuts, research suffers,” said biological and biomedical sciences professor Todd Constable.

Biomedical engineering professor Lawrence Staib, calling the NIH “the most successful federal program ever,” characterized the lack of funding as shortsighted.

Although Obama proposed to support 329 more grants than last year and invest $100 million in a new brain research program, the total funding would not be enough to keep up with inflation. The proposed total also keeps the NIH’s budget below what is was before sequestration, the across-the-board federal budget cuts implemented in 2013.

In tune with many faculty members, universities have expressed broad dissatisfaction with the funding levels in the proposed budget.

“Increases of around one percent are not enough to sustain the pace of discovery that will drive innovation and gains in health and quality of life,” said Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Richard Jacob. “The proposal for NIH is particularly problematic, because it is still below its budget from as far back as [fiscal year] 2011.”

Jacob’s sentiment was broadly echoed by other universities. On Tuesday, the Association of American Universities (AAU), an association of 62 leading research universities that includes Yale, released a statement chastising the levels of research funding in the proposed budget.

The AAU also pointed to a 6.9 percent decrease in basic research spending for the U.S. Defense Department as particularly problematic.

Constable said currently, only one in 10 submitted grant proposals eventually receive funding: when he started in the field of medical research, 24 percent of proposals were funded.

Constable described three negative outcomes from what he characterized as a “brutal funding environment.” Many outstanding proposals do not receive any funding and researchers now spend the bulk of their time writing grant proposals instead of actually doing research, he said. The lack of funding also results in a “brain drain” in which researchers leave the U.S. to pursue their work, he said.

Biomedical engineering professor James Duncan, who has utilized NIH funding in the past, said that while he was disappointed by the proposed NIH budget, he was encouraged by an increase in the budget of the National Science Foundation, which also provides grants for research.

Still, Obama’s budget proposal is considered unlikely to pass Congress in its current form. House Speaker John Boehner called it Obama’s “most irresponsible budget yet” and congressional Republicans have lined up against the proposal. The budget, they claim, does not do enough to rein in federal spending.

Although it criticized the proposal’s funding for research, the AAU nevertheless applauded the budget’s decision proposed spending for financial aid for students pursuing higher education.

Under Obama’s proposal, the NIH would support 9,326 grants, a small increase over last year’s number.