URBANA — Genomics researcher Brett Mommer finished up his doctoral degree at the University of Illinois in May and set about looking for a postdoctoral position at another academic research lab.
It's never a sure bet, finding a senior faculty member in your field of research who has enough grant money to hire another postdoctoral associate.
And this year it was even tougher, as Mommer, 29, discovered.
He applied to a half-dozen U.S. neuroscience labs, as well as two in Europe, hoping to study how brain development and gene expression affect behavior. The U.S. labs all wrote back saying they'd like to hire him but didn't have the money. Both European labs invited him for an interview, and one, a Belgian university that was his top choice, offered him a job.
To Mommer, it was a "stark contrast," one he attributes to the uncertainty about federal research funding caught up in budget sequesters and political stalemates.
"I can't say with any certainty that the sequester is responsible for my woes, because there's so many other factors that determine whether somebody responds positively to you with money in hand," said Mommer, who is headed to the University of Liege later this month. "I'm only one data point, so take it for what it is. But all of the labs in the U.S. said they'd love to have me, but they just didn't have the funding."
Anxiety about the future of federal research funding is found at every level of the university — from graduate students and postdocs who may not get hired to junior faculty looking for their first major grants to eminent senior researchers who have seen grants cut back.
The sequester — automatic cuts that took effect March 1 after Congress failed to reach a budget deal — imposed spending reductions of 8.4 percent for most programs, including many federal research agencies.
Initially, UI officials feared the sequester could cost the university more than $65 million in annual federal funding, which totals about $800 million across the three campuses (including research grants, financial aid and other categories). In fiscal 2012, spending from federal grants and contracts totaled $360 million at the Urbana campus, which is also the largest single recipient of National Science Foundation awards in the country ($218.7 million). The Chicago campus, with its heavy emphasis on health sciences, spent more than $300 million in federal funding.
But each federal agency is handling the sequester in different ways, so the UI still doesn't have a firm number on what the sequester might cost, said Lawrence Schook, UI vice president for research.
So far, the impact has been less severe than expected in terms of overall numbers, but serious concerns remain about future funding cycles, officials said. And the larger worry is that base budgets could be cut even more, as Congress relies on continuing resolutions with no real budget in place, Schook said.
How will the sequester work?
The National Science Foundation, which lost $356 million in the sequester, decided not to cut existing grants. Instead it will absorb the sequester by limiting grants in future years — an estimated 1,000 fewer grants in this cycle — and suspending some new research initiatives, according to a July 17 announcement by the agency.
While the budget for fiscal 2013 has stabilized, the NSF statement said, "the situation for next fiscal year remains somewhat uncertain."
"The thought was that everyone would be cut 8 percent. That has not happened," said Randall Kangas, UI associate vice president for planning and budgeting. "It's more that there will be fewer grants in the future, or there will be lower grants in the future."
Preliminary totals for new federal research awards made in fiscal 2013 show improvement for the Urbana campus, though much of that is for the Blue Waters supercomputing center, UI officials said.
"The good news is, we didn't see an immediate drop of 4 or 5 or 6 percent," Kangas said.
At the Chicago campus, which receives a large share of its research funding from the National Institutes of Health, figures show 2013 grants are "down a little bit," Kangas said.
The NIH gives out multiyear grants but distributes the money year by year, and in June the agency said existing grants will be cut by 4 to 7 percent to help meet a $1.5 billion budget cut required by the sequester. It is also funding 700 fewer new grants this year.
Some top researchers at the Urbana campus have already learned that their current grants will be reduced, said Peter Schiffer, UI vice chancellor for research.
Campus 'ripple effect'
While the UI's medical center is based in Chicago, the Urbana campus also receives a substantial amount of funding from NIH for biomedical and life-sciences research and health-related technologies, said Melanie Loots, executive associate vice chancellor for research.
Schiffer's office recently surveyed campus researchers about the impact of the sequester. Those with NIH funding reported the most cuts, but faculty with grants from others agencies are also feeling the pinch, officials said. Some said planned research would be postponed or canceled, and others reported delays in notification, putting their work in limbo.
The most common worry? The ability to hire postdocs and graduate students — the people who carry out the work on the grants and depend on those jobs to support their educations, Loots said.
"It wasn't people saying, 'Well, I can't buy this piece of equipment.' It's people who are concerned about the human impact," she said.
Biochemistry Professor Susan Martinis sees the impact throughout her highly rated department, which she headed for four years before being promoted to associate dean.
Martinis studies how proteins are synthesized, work that could prove important in the development of new antibiotics. She's in the middle of a four-year grant funded by both NIH and NSF, so her funding is stable for now.
"But there's an uncertainty in the future. There are people who are trying to renew grants that are very nervous. That includes some very prestigious and productive researchers who have been funded for years and years and years," said Martinis, now interim associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In particular, the more competitive grant situation has created anxiety for young faculty trying to land their first grants and establish a research program during their five-year tenure period, she said. Downturns in federal funding can jeopardize the academic careers of strong junior faculty, she said.
"They just don't get tenure, so they start over in industry," Martinis said.
And that's a costly loss for the university. The UI invests huge sums to help new faculty set up labs — easily $1 million for most biomedical researchers. It's considered startup money to help professors attract large federal research grants.
Losing that potential also undermines the UI's educational mission, Martinis said. Top research programs bring in talented graduate students who also work as teaching assistants for undergraduates.
"It's a huge ripple effect," she said.
'Scary' funding outlook
Martinis said some researchers are waiting a year to apply for grants to see how the funding picture shakes out. But that means they may have to let postdocs or professional research scientists go in the meantime, Martinis said.
"When your expertise goes, it means you have to start over when you get a grant in two or three years," she said.
University departments may have to step up with more money, at least until the lab gets back up and running, she said.
The situation at NIH is particularly "grim," according to faculty members who serve as peer-reviewers for grant applications, Martinis said. The number of grants being submitted across the country is down, and few are being funded, she said.
"It's been awhile since it's been this bad," said Martinis, who has been a researcher for two decades.
The percentage of grants funded in any given cycle is known as the "payline," and it varies across the institutes within NIH, said biochemistry Professor Stephen Sligar, director of the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, where most faculty receive funding from NIH.
The payline currently ranges from 9 percent to about 15 percent, in contrast to 25 to 30 percent just a couple of years ago, according to the NIH website. "That's scary," Sligar said.
"We're seeing a dramatic decline in the number of grants that are being funded. Part of that is certainly due to the sequester, but it is also on top of a general decline that's been happening over the years," he said.
Even though NIH funding levels for the last decade have remained relatively robust, money earmarked for special projects has led to a decline in the number of grants to individual investigators, who tend to drive new discoveries, he said.
At the same time, until recently the number of applications was on the rise, naturally lowering the percentage funded, he said. Huge increases in the NIH budget during the 1990s prompted medical schools and other institutions to hire more faculty and build new research operations, and while those budget increases have tapered off, "there are a lot more people in the system," Sligar said.
"The overriding issue is that the percentage of grants being funded is so small that if they make it smaller, they're putting a lot of programs at risk," Schook said.
Some faculty also submit multiple grant proposals simply to keep up with inflation, which has taken a toll on the cost of doing research, Sligar said.
"A dollar doesn't go as far in personnel, equipment, supplies and so on," he said. "You now have a situation where you need more than one grant to run the same research operation as you did in the past."
Universities have also cut back on their support for research labs because of their own budgetary pressures, he said.
"A lot of state revenues that were critical to the research enterprise are gone," Sligar said.
When he moved to the university in 1982 from Yale, the research infrastructure at the UI was "unmatched in the country," Sligar said. Researchers didn't have to pay the machine shop to develop a new tool, for example. Now it's charged to their research grants, Sligar said. The university also takes money out of every research grant for graduate student tuition.
So while research funding may be stable, he said, "you can clearly see the size of the research enterprise is declining."
A national research agenda
Schook and UI President Bob Easter met recently with a bipartisan congressional delegation with membership on the science and technology committee to discuss the problem.
Schook said the sense was that the sequester is here to stay. But they agreed on the need for stability, no matter what the funding level, he said.
Researchers and universities must be able to plan beyond a one-year horizon, in order to compete with private schools that have more resources and with European countries that are setting out five- and 10-year research funding plans, he said.
"If we're having sequestration and continuing resolutions, how do you build a research agenda?" he said. "Just pick a number and stick with it."
Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago together receive more than $9.3 billion each year for funded research, and more than half of that comes from the federal government, said Barbara Allen, executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the Big Ten's academic consortium.
Presidents and chancellors of the nation's top research universities wrote to President Barack Obama and Congress in late July warning that the sequester and the overall erosion of federal funding for research and higher education is creating "an innovation deficit" in relation to China, Singapore and Korea, which have dramatically increased their investments in those areas.
Federally funded research accounts for more than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II and innovations such as life-saving vaccines, lasers, MRI, touchscreens, GPS and the Internet, the letter noted.
"Our nation's role as the world's innovation leader is in serious jeopardy," they said. "Ignoring the innovation deficit will have serious consequences: a less prepared, less highly skilled U.S. workforce, fewer U.S.-based scientific and technological breakthroughs, fewer U.S.-based patents, and fewer U.S. start-ups, products, and jobs."
In the meantime, the university will continue to pursue research funding from other sources, Schook said, citing recent partnerships with BP, Abbott Labs, public-private partnerships and a proposed federal advanced-manufacturing initiative.
"It's more of a matching model in the future," Schook said. "It's a very different ballgame."
This story was updated to correct the amount of funded research for Big Ten universities.