U faces battle for research funds

Liala Helal

The University’s plan to become one of the top three research institutions in the world could be more challenging than anticipated.

As the federal government cuts back on academic research funding nationwide to maintain funding for a growing demand for defense and military research, faculty will have to work harder and compete with other universities for federal dollars.

“There’s no doubt, we’re going to be going head to head with our peers,” said Ed Wink, University director of sponsored research.

Currently, the University receives 72 percent of its research funding from the federal government. Most of that comes from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s going to be a bigger challenge to rise through the ranks and be No. 3 when the primary source allowing us to do that is starting to dry up,” said Tim Mulcahy, University vice president for Research.

But other universities will face the same challenge.

“Hopefully by being increasingly competitive here at Minnesota, we’ll be able to garner a larger share of a shrinking resource,” Mulcahy said.

There are only a handful of funding areas the government can make decisions about, and research is one of those, he said.

Other sources of funding for University research come from businesses, foundations and the state government.

The University is confronting the federal funding problem in a number of ways.

One way is by trying to convince the federal government of the importance of funding academic research.

It is not wise of the government to cut back in nondefense-related research because it will decrease the nation’s competitiveness at a time when global competitiveness is rapidly increasing, Mulcahy said.

“In the long-run, I think it’s a mistake,” he said.

The University might look into partnering with businesses and industries more than it has in the past. Only 8 percent of the total research funding comes from businesses.

The University is also working with its faculty to find other funding opportunities.

“Fortunately, the faculty on campus are very competitive and do an extremely good job of securing these funds,” Mulcahy said.

But when there is no more money to be had, no matter how competitive the institution is, it’s not going to be able to increase its research budget, he said.

The faculty likely will carry the heaviest burden as the University relies on it for research.

“The faculty is the economic engine for the institution,” Wink said.

In his time at the University, Wink said, he has never seen federal funding decrease. Most of the time, the rate of funding increases goes down, he said.

Faculty members are already experiencing the effects of the cutbacks, said Vipin Kumar, a professor in the computer science department.

The department gets most of its funding from the National Science Foundation.

Since research projects are funded on a multiyear cycle, past projects will continue to be funded at the same rate. New projects, however, will receive less money because the foundation receives less money from the government.

“It means it will be much harder for anyone to get those funds,” Kumar said. “Everyone has to work harder.”

It is getting more competitive for faculty to get grants, Mulcahy said. He predicts now only one out of every five grants will get funding.

“We’re starting to feel it now,” Mulcahy said, “This is something that’s having an impact now as we speak.”

Kumar said that if the faculty doesn’t work harder, the University could fall behind in the rankings, although that is not likely.

“I’m assuming our faculty, Universitywide, will work very hard and at least fare as well as our peers,” he said.

“So we might get a smaller piece of the pie, but I don’t expect we will do worse than our peers,” he said.

But the quality of research might be impacted if the University isn’t able to support enough students to work on research projects, which could mean less work will be put into projects, Kumar said.

Mulcahy said research at the University is significant because it is “constantly moving the frontier of knowledge.”

“What the University does is extremely important,” he said.

The University produces new knowledge that leads to new products. In the long run, this enhances quality of life, economic growth, and contributes to the nation’s competitiveness, he said.

“We are in fact, an engine that contributes to the national prominence and the lifestyle that we all enjoy,” Mulcahy said.

Although the challenge is huge, Wink said he remains optimistic because the University has a tradition and heritage of “great research” that will remain despite the lack of money.

“That doesn’t go away,” he said.

Though, the University’s future remains somewhat uncertain, he said.

“It’s a little bit of a crystal ball,” he said. “But if the past is any indication of the future, I just think that the institution will continue to do well.”

In the meantime, however, all areas of research at the University will be affected in some way, Mulcahy said.

“Some areas will be squeezed more than others, but everybody’s going to feel the pinch,” he said.