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VC Lewin provides research funding update


The following article appeared in the Aug. 14 edition of The Davis Enterprise. Posted here with permission.

By Cory Golden
The Davis Enterprise

Sequestration has likely sliced federal research funding to UC Davis by $50 million, according to Vice Chancellor Harris Lewin, stifling unprecedented growth by the campus’ research enterprise.

Photo: Vice Chancellor Harris Lewin


The final numbers for this fiscal year won’t be available until October, but Lewin said in a recent interview that only the doggedness of researchers in chasing down other sources of money has kept overall funding from a significant drop-off.

He warned, however, that the ongoing cuts will increasingly hurt the competitiveness of UCD — and the United States — as other countries pour more money into basic research.

The so-called sequester — an estimated $1.2 trillion in mandatory budget cuts from 2013 to 2021 meant to force a deficit-reducing budget deal between Congress and the Obama administration — went into effect March 1.

Though federal departments took a 5 percent cut, many began holding back money in anticipation of sequestration. That’s translated into funding cuts of 10 to 20 percent from some agencies, Lewin said.

Yet he said he expects UCD’s external research funding total to be “very close to the numbers that it hit last year.”

In 2011-12, UCD researchers attracted a record $750 million in research awards — about $400 million of that in federal money. That total represented a $65 million increase from the previous year, continuing UCD’s pace for the fastest growth of any UC campus since 1995, despite a shrinking faculty.

“Really, the effects (of the sequester) on the campus, I would say, are modest given how amazingly strong our faculty are and how they’ve responded to this,” Lewin said. “When you start to have cuts, people put in more grants, so their chances go up, and they look at other avenues for funding, they start to go to foundations and other places.”

Federal dollars

In 2011-12, UCD received $195 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health, and $48 million from the National Science Foundation. U.S. Department of Agriculture funding reached $56 million.

How each agency has approached the cuts has varied: the NSF planned to award 1,000 fewer grants this year, for example, while the NIH slowed funding in advance of the sequester.

USDA announced a 5 percent cut, but Lewin said it appeared the decrease in funds awarded nationally from that agency looked to be much larger. The Davis campus is usually the largest recipient of USDA funding.

“What (cutting the number of awards does) is make a highly competitive situation more competitive — competitive to the point where it isn’t really competitive anymore,” he said. “You’re really not making decisions that are completely independent at that point. They’re somewhat arbitrary. You’re looking at 7 or 8 percent success rate (for NIH grants) in a nation that has such a strong biomedical research enterprise.”

While it’s difficult to estimate how many more awards UCD might have attracted without the cuts — “You’re talking about several awards, I would say, on campus,” Lewin said — researchers receiving fewer dollars on existing awards have been left with a clear choice: lay off workers or trim costs.

“A huge impact is on training and opportunities for graduate students, opportunities for post-doctoral fellows,” Lewin said. “This has an immediate impact on all of those labs that are anticipating funding or that have new ideas and are trying to move their research programs forward, in that you’re going to reduce the work force, you’re going to reduce the number of students being trained and post-docs. And that has a very big effect.”

On the whole, UCD has successfully shifted the balance of its funding, he said. State contracts look to be up, particularly public health projects.

Infrastructure needs

Leaning more on state funding has its downside, though, including one that underscores to the potential long-term effects of the sequester. That comes in the guise of facilities and administrative rates paid by federal versus state agencies — money that allows a campus to keep its infrastructure updated.

The federal government pays an average of 53.5 percent: for every $1,000 in funds that go to salaries, supplies, travel and the like, another $535 goes to infrastructure. State agencies pay less and are a “mess” of varying rates, by comparison, Lewin said.

“Of that $50 million (in decreased federal funds), something like a one-third of that would be indirect costs,” he said. “So you’re looking at a loss of $10 (million), $15 million in what would go into maintaining the research infrastructure at a time when the state budgets are declining — there’s no money for deferred maintenance, there’s no capital projects. We’re not building any (research) buildings here. That’s a big hit for the campus.”

That loss will become more apparent this fiscal year, he said, because indirect costs are paid as reimbursements for money spent.

Junior faculty hit hard

For individual researchers, the sequester makes for a “bleak”-looking future, Lewin said. That’s especially true for junior faculty.

“Right now the average age of the first NIH award is 41. So you can do the math,” he said. “Somebody will finish their Ph.D. at around 30 years of age. They’ll do a (post-doctoral fellowship) for a couple of years, (so) they’ll be 32 or 33. Maybe they’ll do another post-doc, because there aren’t that many faculty positions around.

“Then, if you don’t get a grant in your first four or five years, there’s no way for you to get tenure at a research university.”

With budget cuts have come increased paperwork, too, and not just applications. Greater scrutiny of compliance means less time doing research or training students.

One rule of thumb holds that any one researcher with two NIH grants now spends about one-third of her time doing administrative work, Lewin said: “It doesn’t produce papers, it doesn’t produce good students, it’s just filling out all the forms and reporting. I think that’s really going to affect the productivity of young faculty.”

Most UCD students in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — will enter private industry, not academia. That’s a shift he expects to grow.

Likewise, more research money is likely to come from private companies. Under Lewin’s direction, UCD has reshaped its Office of Research to help smooth that funding pathway.

The work private money pays for is different, however.

“Companies have a problem they want to solve, and our faculty come in as individuals or as group and try to solve that problem,” Lewin said. “They’re not philanthropic, in general. They don’t really fund basic research.”

‘Innovation gap’

On May 1, Chancellor Linda Katehi joined chancellors and presidents from 165 universities in publishing an open letter warning that cutting funding for research and higher education is creating an “innovation gap,” as China, Singapore and Korea have increased funding for research and development at two to four times the rate of U.S. funding.

Fundamental research has produced the Internet, vaccines, lasers, global positioning systems and other innovations that have spurred the economy, the letter said.

Far from contributing to the deficit, it continued, spending on research and educating the country’s workforce is “vital” to deficit-reduction.

Lewin said a kind of reverse brain drain is well underway. Researchers from U.S. institutions — including UCD — are heading abroad more often, taking up summer appointments, setting up labs or collaborating as part of institutes in countries spending on research. And they’re headed not just to Asian or European countries, but to South America, too, to Chile or Brazil.

“That presents us with another set of challenges in maintaining our globally competitive position in science, engineering and agriculture as others begin to invest more and more and more and make flexible and really very good deals for our faculty,” Lewin said.

“There have been the one-offs and star faculty who get recruited to do things, but now we’re starting to see it at a frequency and a level I’ve never seen before.”

Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden.

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