University Research Undermined by Diminishing Federal Cost-Sharing

By Brian Herman, Published on January 26, 2015

The biomedical research we rely on for advances in medicine, whether it be vaccines or cures for life-threatening disease, depends upon sufficient funding. Without resources, scientists cannot establish and run sophisticated labs and they cannot pay the salaries of the post-doctoral fellows and essential staff the play key roles in conducting research.

Most of the money for scientific research comes from federal funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health. It is a point of pride that federal grants are bestowed upon the nation’s best and brightest, those showing the greatest promise of innovation and discovery.

But when this crucial funding arrives, it comes with strings attached. Researchers may win it, but the federal government requires universities share the cost of conducting research. They are called on to defray the expenses of salaries and benefits, administrative costs, infrastructure and supplies.

Unfortunately, this cost-sharing arrangement has fallen woefully out of balance. While the costs of conducting research have increased over time, the federal government has, in real terms, significantly reduced its contribution. And it is the universities who must make up the shortfall.

In a recent article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, lays out the facts.

Citing data from the National Science Foundation, he notes that U.S. universities now spend more than $12 billion of their own funds in support of research and development, an amount that has doubled in the last 12 years. In fact, their share of the support for research rose from 8.7 percent in 1962 to 19.4 percent in 2012.

He describes a number of reasons for the increase. The first is a product of the advancement of science: the cost for instrumentation needed for today’s highly specialized and sophisticated research labs has increased significantly.

However, his other reasons relate directly to the fact that the federal government is shrinking its commitment to research. As noted in earlier posts, federal research funds available through the NIH have declined by 25 percent in real dollars over the last decade. This has translated into a smaller percentage of grants being approved for NIH funding and therefore researchers face greater competition for funds. Only 17 percent of grant applications were accepted for NIH funding last year, as compared to 30 percent in 2003. As Daniels points out, it is the universities who fund the research during the time it takes applicants to win their own grants.

Add to this the fact that the federal government has capped reimbursements for administrative costs at the same level for more than 20 years and lowered the cap on salary recovery. Coupled with an increasingly expensive regulatory burden and, in real terms, the university share gets even bigger.

And yet, as Daniels notes, this squeeze comes at a time when centers for biomedical research are operating under greater financial pressures, including tighter margins, losses in clinical revenues and unpredictable funding from all sources.

The University of Minnesota, where I work, is anything but immune. The university’s total R&D expenditures for all campuses is $882 million. Of these expenditures, a growing and significant portion is the institution’s $175 million investment of its own funds to finance research. This trajectory of institutional support of research is unsustainable. Put another way, something has to give.

The great concern is that it will be the quality of the research conducted at our elite centers of learning.

“With so much of the federal research investment taking the form of grants to individuals,” Daniels notes, “cash-strapped universities might be led to make choices that are short of ideal for science policy or the biomedical workforce. For instance, over time, universities could shy away from the recruitment of unproven scientists who lack their own funding streams, opting instead for established investigators who have shown that they can attract more consistent support.”

Every great scientist was, at one point, unproven. The question we face today is how many will stay that way due to this untenable state of affairs.

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