UT researchers feel the toll of federal research funding reductions

Trevor Heise

Ongoing budget cuts are taking their toll on UT researchers and students in the form of grant cancellations, delayed projects and diminished assistance from federal agencies.

The government shutdown earlier this fall caused UT researchers to miss important grant-submission deadlines and slowed the grant processing procedure, but John DiGiovanni, a cancer researcher and pharmacy and nutritional sciences professor, said these troubles are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Federal funding for research grants has been on the decline, and automatic federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — have exacerbated the trend. For example, the National Science Foundation will accept nearly 1,000 fewer grant applications for this fiscal year. In addition, the National Institutes of Health will be forced to cut its 2013 fiscal year budget by 5 percent — or $1.55 billion. 

“The meeting of the grant review panel that I serve on for the NIH has been cancelled,” DiGiovanni said. “On top of that, we’ve seen delays in funding for grants.”

President William Powers Jr., who is the newly elected chairman of the Association of American Universities — a consortium of 62 public and private research universities — traveled to Washington D.C. early this November to speak with legislators and voice his concerns over the cuts, which, he said, impede students’ abilities to be a part of research that could change the world.

But it’s not only the federal grant budget that is under review, according to economics professor Daniel Hamermesh. The budgets of administrative agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education, are seeing substantial cuts. Cuts to these agencies’ budgets hamper their ability to collect raw data that UT researchers rely on, Hamermesh said. 

“More funding is better, and these fields [the social sciences] are not highly paid,” Hamermesh said. “But what’s worse is killing important data sets.” 

The decline of federal funding for basic research is not a new phenomenon. Historically, government dollars accounted for a majority of those spent on science research in the United States, but that trend has reversed of late, with private and corporate research funding taking precedence. 

Though researchers have lost the security of federal grants, some students, such as engineering sophomore Katherine Magee, see opportunities in growing private funding for research. “Government grants are certainly important in building the University, but so much of the research we have access to is in the private sector,” Magee said. “So for me, that private funding for research is almost more important than government grants.”