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Will The Well Run Dry?: Duke Research Funding Faces Uncertain Time

This story was written by Jessica Lichter, The Duke Chronicle
With the government grappling with the worst economic outlook since the Great Depression, it seems unlikely that Congress would be willing to reach deeper into its wallet any time soon.

But the research industry, which depends heavily on government funding, will try to persuade Congress to keep digging.

As one of the nation's most prominent research institutions, Duke Universityreceives 17 percent of its revenue from research, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Although in recent years Duke has received increases in funding from the National Institutes of Health-the government agency primarily responsible for medical research-the University saw a decrease in its research enterprise for the first time last year, from $388 million in 2006 to $386 million in 2007.

Vice Provost for Research James Siedow said he is doubtful that this year will be any different. With wars in two countries, bailout plans and a leveled NIH budget, it is unlikely that Duke will receive increases in funding.

"We've competed pretty well against other schools," Siedow said. "We've continued to grow the research enterprise, but now we're beginning to see decreases at Duke... and this year isn't looking a whole lot better."

Congress might have to cut research spending because it is a nonessential expenditure and its payoffs are too far off in the future to help alleviate the current financial crisis, said Connel Fullenkamp, associate professor of economics.

Others, however, are more optimistic. Schoenfeld said Congress will undoubtedly have to make cuts in spending, but the reductions may not include research. Because of the economic and commercial activity research generates, government officials may consider research to be an economic stimulus rather than an excess expenditure.

"Funding for research is actually a very effective and valuable investment for the country," Schoenfeld said. "It has an already existing infrastructure. We know how to do it, we don't need to invent a new bureaucracy."

Over the next 10 years, President-elect Barack Obama has proposed to double the budgets of prominent science agencies, such as the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Senate Democrats introduced an economic stimulus bill Monday that includes an additional $1 billion in funding for the NIH on top of its current budget of $29.5 billion.

In addition to serving as an economic driver, Congress may want to allocate more money to research because it supports human intellectual capital, said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations and Duke's main point of contact for the government.

"We want to use that money to find a cure for cancer, build better equipment and build better schools," he said.

Even before the onset of the economic crisis in September, scientific research funding had already taken a hit. For decades, funding for the physical sciences has declined as a fraction of gross domestic product, and after five years of immense growth, the budget allocated to the life sciences has leveled, according to Obama's Web site. When accounting for inflation, the NIH budget-which doubled between 1998 and 2003 but has remained flat since then-has actually decreased.

Although Duke has done well in securing funding as compared to peer institutions in recent years and the decrease in 2007 is relatively small, Siedow said the cut is still significant because some faculty are excluded completely from receiving research grants.

"It's not uniformly funded," Siedow said. "Certain pople lose 100 percent."

Mohammed Noor, associate chair of biology, who sits on a genetic and evolution panel at NIH and previously served on an evolutionary genetics panel at the National Science Foundation, said he understands the difficulty of acquiring a grant first-hand. Noor, who takes part in evaluating grant proposals, said applications that were scored in a range in the past that would have been funded are now coming back as resubmissions. Noor said his proposal that was rejected this year received a score that would have received funding three to four years ago.

"In terms of percentiles, eight years ago, if you were in the top 25 percent, your odds were very good at NIH," Noor said. "The one I had was in the 21st or 22nd percentile. I expect you have to [now] be well below 20 percent [to receive funding,]" he said.

In the last three to four years, the success rate for obtaining grants has dropped 35 percent, said Dr. Mark Dewhirst, director of Duke's Radiation Oncology Program. This has made it especially difficult for young researchers to get funding, because NIH is now generally giving money to those who have established labs.

Levels of funding vary among the scientific disciplines, depending on their relative significance to the government. While most researchers are struggling to acquire funds, Dr. Nelson Chao, director of Duke's Adult Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program, said he anticipates that he will receive continuous funding for at least one of his projects. Chao is working on research that involves decreasing the effects of the toxicities of radiation exposure, pertinent to battling bioterrorism and contributing to the medical field.

"I think it's an area that will continue to need work, and money will continue to float to get this work done. It is basic research because it is for dual use, but it is targeted to biodefense," Chao said.

Siedow said increasing research funding by only a small percentage would be worth the cost because of its potential to have a dramatic impact on the economy in the long run. He noted, however, that several other fields will be making the same argument.

"Once [Congress] opens Pandora's box and tries to please one group, they are going to run the risk of having to try to please all groups," he said.