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Despite a recent compromise on a $1.1 trillion federal budget, Kansas University officials are still fretting over the long-term future of federally funded research.
Steve Warren, vice chancellor of research and graduate studies at KU, gave a talk to the Kansas Board of Regents recently, both to keep the regents apprised of the funding landscape and to help them sway lawmakers on the issue.
Warren discussed the recently passed budget bill, which restores much of the research funding axed in sequestration cuts for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. But with the law that created the sequester effective through 2020, funding levels could slide back to sequester levels by 2016. Warren calls the new budget “more like a Band-Aid.”
Since Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2010, federal research dollars have dropped sharply. Even with those cuts, KU rose in the rankings for federally funded research, from 39th to 38th among public universities and 75th to 72nd among all universities. “Everybody is in a down market,” Warren said. “But we’re falling down slower than they are.”
Still, Warren said researchers at KU spend huge amounts of time, energy and stress filling out grant applications for a funding pot that has dwindled and become ever more competitive. He worries that in the long run the funding environment could turn students away from graduate school and research, and that it could lead faculty to become discouraged and give up submitting projects.
The cuts have also driven KU to look more to the private sector for funding. Corporate sponsored research funding at KU increased from about $8 million in 2012 to more than $9 million in 2013, according to the KU Innovation and Collaboration 2013 annual report. And administrators expect it to keep growing.
Julie Nagel, executive director of corporate partnerships at KU, said companies often solicit the university because of faculty and department expertise. “They’ll say, ‘We have a problem. Figure it out for us and we’ll pay for it.’” Faculty retain publishing rights under these agreements and generally get funding much more quickly than from the government.
Warren said he spends 10 to 20 percent of his time these days working to increase corporate and other private funding. But he said it couldn’t replace federal dollars.
For one, there’s just not as much of it out there. Also, companies are often unwilling to pay for the basic research that has no immediate, obvious economic impact and that might not pay off for decades, if at all.
“There’s no Bell Labs anymore,” Warren said, referring to the research and development unit of AT&T that helped develop the laser, the transistor and radio astronomy. “Companies don’t do this anymore.”