With Republicans’ takeover of the Senate earlier this month, Yale researchers have been forced to ask a half-billion dollar question: What will happen to research funding from the federal government?
From 2012 to 2013, the University experienced a 4 percent drop in federal grant and contract income funding — from $562 million to $535 million — University Spokesman Tom Conroy told the News last fall. But while federal funding for the NIH has been declining in real dollars since 2003, many at the Yale Schools of Medicine and Public Health argue there is no need for heightened pessimism with the advent of a fiscally conservative majority in the Senate. Few faculty were willing to make specific predictions, but election results have prompted discussions about the future funding climate at Yale, they said.
“I am hopeful that research spending might increase, but our prudent approach is not to count on it,” Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern said.
According to Carrie Wolinetz, deputy vice president for federal relations for the Association of American Universities — an association of 62 leading American research universities — research universities across the nation are currently waiting to see whether the new Congress will result in an increase, decrease or stagnation in the federal budget. Any cuts to the budget at large, she said, would be a strong indicator that NIH funding will suffer as a result. She added that though support for the NIH has generally come both from Democrats and Republicans, Republicans tend to favor greater reductions in federal funding overall.
At the same time, Wolinetz said Republicans generally care less about federally funded programs with which the NIH competes for funding than they do about the NIH itself, providing the department with a somewhat backwards advantage.
While physicians, researchers and faculty members interviewed acknowledged that it is difficult to predict what position a Republican Congress will take on medical research funding, many argued that increasing investment in the field would be concurrent with the Republican party line.
“I think moderate republicans see the value of innovation,” said Thomas Lynch ’82 MED ’86, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician in chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital. He added that he hopes that the Republicans will be able to work well with the Democrats to restore the country’s commitment to funding science and innovation. Alpern agreed, noting that both political parties have been committed to medical research, and the real differences lie in how they plan to fund that research.
But some researchers interviewed expressed concern about a fiscally conservative congress.
Though Lynch said that a Republican Senate might see medical funding as an investment in innovation, he also noted that the Republicans’ limited view of government spending in general could end up including science funding.
“Researchers at YSPH have been extremely concerned about the NIH budget for several years and are very apprehensive about possible implications of the new Congress,” Dean of the School of Public Health Paul Cleary said.
But he said he does not foresee Congress attacking the NIH specifically. Though bipartisan support for NIH funding is not as strong as it used to be, “it is there,” he said.
While Alpern and Ronald Vender MED ’77, chief medical officer of the Yale Medical Group, agreed that they had not heard anything to suggest that Yale researchers are worried about how a Republican Senate might affect research funding, Lynch said researchers have a larger worry.
“I think that people are very concerned about the overall government commitment to research and innovation,” he said.
Currently, about 80 percent of research at Yale is funded by the NIH — a lower percentage than both the inflation-adjusted 2004 level and the non-adjusted 2010 level, said Associate Vice President for Federal and State Relations Richard Jacob. He added that after a five-year campaign to double the NIH budget that stretched from 1998—2003 concluded, the institutes’ ability to fund applications dropped markedly.
Each shrinking of the federal budget leads to subsequent reductions in domestic programs, like education and research, Jacob said. Though Yale hopes investment in university research funding will continue to be a national priority, sheer dollars are not the only thing at risk of being lost, he added.
“Spending on university research has been so constrained that the country is at risk of creating another deficit — one in innovation,” Jacob said.
In light of reductions in public funding for science, universities such as Yale have been laying more emphasis on private research sponsors, which typically fund drug- or disease-specific research. But the kinds of research that provide innovative solutions to wide ranging and difficult problems normally stem from basic scientific research, which are not focused on drug development, Lynch said.
While commending Yale for keeping abreast of basic science despite declining funding, Lynch noted that the popularity of basic science among young researchers entering the field is already declining. And because medical researchers are aware that less funding is available for basic science research, many of them are preemptively deciding not to pursue those grants since they are unlikely to receive them, Lynch said. While institutions like Yale and its peers may not be as hard hit as some have predicted, smaller schools likely will be, he added.
“At places where the talent pool is thinner [and thus receive less money in general], people absolutely worry about the funding climate,” he said.