U patches research funding

The University has offset federal cuts, but researchers say it may not be enough.

by Kristoffer Tigue

In a time of decreased federal research funding, sometimes even cancer studies don’t make the cut.

After the sweeping federal budget cuts known as the sequester took effect last year, the funding was delayed for University of Minnesota associate pharmacy professor Jatinder Lamba’s leukemia research. Lamba said she’s afraid she’ll have to lay off some research staff if her lab doesn’t receive more money soon.

To tide her over, the University has funded Lamba’s research with its “bridge program,” which reallocates existing University funds to researchers who have lost some or all of their funding. University Vice President for Research Brian Herman said his office is increasing bridge funding this year in order to keep the research enterprise competitive.

In his annual report to the Board of Regents earlier this month, Herman said the University saw a $56 million decrease in total sponsored awards from 2012 to 2013.

While most colleges experienced funding cuts, the College of Biological Sciences and the School of Public Health both saw increases from 2012 to 2013.

Staying afloat

Lamba applied for $30,000 in bridge funding last September because her grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health was delayed. Without the bridge program, Lamba said she wouldn’t have been able to continue her research developing more personalized drug regiments that would better treat leukemia.

Lamba now plans to move her research into the next phase and increase the study’s sample size by 2,000 people.

Herman said the bridge program doesn’t have a fixed budget. But since the loss of federally sponsored grants has been so severe, he said they have upped the amount offered per bridge award this year, now ranging from $30,000 to $150,000 per request.

“We strategically invest these dollars to make sure good science and good research continue to be supported,” Herman said. “The institution has stepped in to try to help fill the gap left by the loss of federal funding.”

Lamba said the bridge funds will help her keep her staff and pay for additional supplies while they wait to learn when their grant renewal will kick in.

“There’s a lot of cost involved,” she said. “You have people who are working on the grant. Also, [there are] the supplies and the reagents that you need in order to keep doing the research.”

Still not enough

Associate physics professor Lucy Fortson applied for bridge funding when her grant from the National Science Foundation ended three months early because of the sequester.

Funding for her research ended in October instead of January. One of Fortson’s research projects, Galaxy Zoo, is an online database that uses citizen scientists to identify black holes and galaxy types.

Fortson said she applied for $150,000 in bridge funding but only received $57,000. She said the assistance helped her keep both of her researchers employed, but that it’s not enough to hold them over before the next grant comes through.

“$57K doesn’t take you very far in one year,” she said. “I wish they had given me more to tide [my researchers] over through the next grant cycle.”

Fortson said she’ll find out if her grant is successful in July. If her funding isn’t approved, she said, her researchers won’t have adequate time to find new jobs.

“They gave me the period of time I asked for, which was 18 months, but they only gave me a third of the money,” she said.

Fortson can’t reapply for the bridge program while she’s receiving funds from it, which she said has put her in a tight spot.

Herman said the program isn’t meant to replace funding, but rather to add a short buffer period for researchers as they look for alternative funding.

“We have far more requests for funding than we have available funds,” he said. “We usually fund probably the top 30 percent of the proposals we receive.”

The University is continually trying to identify areas where it can create savings in order to reallocate the funds into programs like this one, Herman said. For example, he said administrative overhead has faced cuts to support the bridge program.

Areas like compliance have been rolled back, he said, because data has shown compliance levels at the University are high. They recently decreased animal treatment compliance inspections from four times a year to two, he said.

Despite not getting as much as she requested, Fortson said she’s happy the program exists and that she can continue her work trying to understand more about the universe.

“In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s amazing that our society is at a place that we can afford to spend money on research that asks these kinds of questions,” she said. “That allows us to understand where we are in our universe and how we got to where we are.”