The scientific method, as we learned it in grade school, generally begins with a question, followed by a hypothesis, experiment, observation, and conclusion. Scientists in academia have an extra step that falls somewhere in between all of the above: applying for federal grants in hopes that they can continue funding their labs until their projects have concluded.
Elizabeth Olson, an associate professor of auditory biophysics at the Columbia University Medical Center and of biomedical engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, studies amplification in the inner ear cavity. With a better understanding of how cell-based forces amplify motions in the cochlea, she says that future research might be used to study hearing loss remediation.
Olson received a grant in 1996 from the National Institutes of Health, a federal institution, to fund this research and has since successfully managed to renew the grant four times. But in 2016, on her fifth go-around, she ran into trouble.
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason why. “There’s a large element of luck with getting a grant funded,” Olson says. She explains that grant renewals depend not only on the quality of research, but also on whether or not the grant review board is interested in the proposed kind of research.
It goes without saying that the availability of grants also depends on federal funding and therefore the support of the government. When President Donald Trump put forth his 2018 budget proposal this past March, it featured an 18 percent cut to NIH funding, among many other cuts. Referring to both Trump’s March and May budget proposals, CUMC Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Ross A. Frommer called these proposed cuts “a real red flag.”
“Obviously this is a major concern for not just Columbia, but for anybody involved in research, for academic institutions, for medical schools, for patient advocates, for science,” Frommer says.
Considering that, as of 2015, NIH funding constituted nearly a quarter of CUMC’s budget, Olson and the Columbia University Medical Center in general serve as an interesting case study in examining the impacts of volatile federal funding on research and operation.
After Olson’s fifth grant renewal application was rejected twice, she applied for, and finally received, a brand-new NIH grant for the same project. Although she gently refers to her most recent application process as “a very death-defying experience,” she appreciates her safety nets.
For one thing, she’s not her family’s only source of income. “If things really went south, I wouldn’t go into a whole existential panic,” she says. She underlines that this is not the case for everyone who relies on research grants. “I have friends who are the primary breadwinners and I know they are more stressed.”
Olson is also the director of the Fowler Memorial Laboratory, which receives private funding from a family in addition to the aforementioned federal grants from the NIH. Olson said that this cushion has meant that she hasn’t had to change her research plans or lay researchers off, even if the NIH funding she receives is less than what she budgeted for. She describes this philanthropic family as her lab’s “angel,” providing some security in case the funding doesn’t come through. Unfortunately, not every lab has a philanthropic angel.
Many labs at both CUMC and Morningside Heights campuses rely on funding from the government, through the NIH, to pay for their research. When federal support for research is uncertain, as it seems to be in the Trump era, so is the funding.
Luckily for undergraduate researchers, CUMC is generally not responsible for providing their salaries. During the school year, students typically work for academic credit, and during the summer, they often receive funding through their undergraduate college. However, in the absence of that funding, Olson acknowledges that it would be very difficult to provide additional salaries for undergraduate researchers.
Nevertheless, students who volunteer in labs during the school year and work in labs during the summer overhear complaints about funding, even if they aren’t directly involved with the applications. “I really like research but even having been there for a year, I think it’s a really frustrating process already,” says Nicki Mohammadi, a Barnard College junior studying biology.
Undergraduate research at Barnard has other modes of institutional funding. Some science majors at Barnard participate in the Summer Research Institute, a 10-week supervised research program that not only subsidizes students’ on-campus living arrangements, but also gives participants a platform from which to share their research at the end of the program. The program requires that the students receive funding through a grant, which comes from either the institutional funds, faculty grants, or from grants secured by the Office of the Provost.
According to SRI Co-Chair and biology professor John Glendinning, the program is typically able to support every student who finds a mentor and a research project. He did, however, recall one year during which a “small number” of students didn’t make it off the waitlist because of uncertainty about the availability of some external funds.
The program ultimately secured funds through the Office of the Provost, but Glendinning says it was a “frustrating” experience, particularly for the students.
What does the SRI and its funding of the average undergraduate researcher have to do with federal grants? Glendinning will be the first to tell you that funding students’ SRI participation is complicated. For instance, some of the Office of the Provost’s SRI funds come from donations to an endowment which specifically supports the SRI.
The Office of the Provost itself does not receive direct federal funding. What it does receive are some indirect federal funds, which are negotiated between Barnard and the federal government anytime a faculty member acquires a federal grant. At Barnard, these funds can pay for Barnard library services, administrative costs, and hiring a staff for the laboratory.
Trump’s original budget proposal would cap these indirect funds at 10 percent of the direct federal grant. “All I can say is that if the president’s budget goes through as it was originally articulated, it would be devastating for all scientific research in the United States,” Glendinning says. He notes that while Barnard faculty have “generally been pretty successful at securing grant funding,” colleges and universities across the country would feel the loss of indirect funds from those grants.
Some students do have to work out their funding worries without the SRI’s help. During the week before final exams of her sophomore year, Barnard College senior Gabi Belnavis found out that she had not been accepted into SRI. She asked her intended research mentor, CUMC assistant professor Rebecca Haeusler, for guidance. Haeusler, the principal investigator of the Haeusler Laboratory, directed her to an application for an extension onto Haeusler’s existing grant, specifically for underrepresented undergraduate students.
Now a senior, Belnavis can still access funding from the extension grant. The grant doesn’t expire until 2019, although due to its stipulations, she can only use it while she is an undergraduate. The extension grant provided Belnavis funding for her work in the Haeusler Lab this summer. It’s clear then that there are ways in which federal funding of CUMC does provide space and opportunity for undergraduates to do research.
Dependency on federal grants can also affect what kinds of research an institution can perform. During the Bush administration, for example, Columbia had to turn to the state of New York for funding to offset the federal government’s lack of support for stem cell research.
The volatility of income and the uncertainty of its sources, then, prove to be enduring problems that define and shape the operation of university institutions. As recently as 2014, Mailman School of Public Health students and faculty accused administrators of not addressing the socio-medical department’s budget concerns and letting go of two professors as a result. Vice Dean for Academic Advancement and clinical biostatistics professor Roger Vaughan said that the school was not meeting its goal of having a 3 percent financial surplus to act as a cushion in case of funding shortages.
“NIH funding has always been, and is, and will always be the most important issue that I deal with in Washington,” Frommer says, adding that this has consistently been the case throughout his past 16 years at CUMC, regardless of who has been in the White House.
In spite of the ongoing problems with federal funding, scientists have reasons to remain hopeful. The researchers I spoke with at CUMC know that the NIH has historically been supported by Congress, and therefore did not feel an increased sense of concern solely from Trump’s aforementioned budget proposal. Their optimism was rewarded this September when Congress rejected that proposal.
However, Trump’s presence in the White House has given some scientists an increased urge to advocate for funding. “There definitely has been some anxiety around Trump’s election and the threats that he and the White House have made to federal funding for science,” says Heather Macomber, a Columbia College senior, Amgen Scholar, and former participant in Columbia’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. She said that in the Columbia Neuroscience Society, of which she’s a member, there’s been a larger push for scientists to mobilize as advocates for public policy. “I think most scientists feel a little troubled, a little uneasy, certainly on less solid ground than they did under the Obama presidency, but not panic-level.”
The researchers I spoke to don’t believe that there is reason to be more concerned about funding than they were before Trump released his initial budget. But there is always going to be some stress with regard to grant applications. “The situation’s already tough enough,” Zhang says. “I think the competition sometimes is already not really healthy.”
Federal grants, therefore, are clearly not a perfect way to fund research and as such some institutions do use industrial grants and internal funding as alternatives.
In 2015, Harvard University funded 53.78 percent of its research through federal funding and 28.02 percent through institutional funds, compared to Columbia’s 68.25 percent from federal funding and 13.55 percent through its funds. Harvard also has a notoriously huge endowment valued at $37.6 billion in 2015, compared to Columbia’s (smaller but not insubstantial) $9.04 billion.
Even with that internal cushion, Harvard faculty have expressed concerns about decreased federal funding, especially in 2015 when, for the first time since 2010, outside funding sources gave Harvard less than $800 million, continuing a years-long decline. (That said, $11 million of the $16 million decrease from the previous year was attributed to the end of Harvard’s funding through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also stands out for its high percentage of industrial funding: 16.12 percent of its funding, compared to 4.56 percent of Columbia’s or 4.75 percent of Harvard’s, comes from businesses. MIT benefits from programs such as the Industrial Liaison Program which facilitates relationships between faculty and over 700 companies with research needs.
Although some researchers see private-academic partnerships as a beneficial collaboration, SRI Co-Chair Glendinning pointed out potential ethical concerns. “Some people are uncomfortable going to private sources because they worry the research they’re going to be doing could have a conflict of interest,” Glendinning says. “Some people won’t do that.”
In addition to its federal funding, Columbia has received significant donations from large philanthropic organizations. In 2013 for instance, Michael Bloomberg, Daniel Doctoroff, and David Rubenstein’s initiative Target ALS donated $25 million to CUMC specifically to fund research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
One issue with philanthropic grants is that they typically don’t cover overhead costs to the extent that federal grants would cover expenses such as keeping the lights on and maintaining research infrastructure.
“I think what makes a huge difference is having some private funding that’s coming into your lab that’s not an NIH grant, that’s a little more fluid, meaning that you don’t have to spend it all in five years,” Olson says of the idea of funding in the current research climate. “That can provide a nice buffer.”
For undergraduate researchers in NIH-funded labs, concerned conversations about money can cause some trepidation about staying in academia after college. On the flip side, seeing faculty persevere even in the face of threatened funding cuts inspires some.
“Anyone who’s going to get a Ph.D. knows the odds to an extent, but I still think that there’s such incredible value in a Ph.D.,” Macomber says. She’s planned on earning a doctorate in neuroscience since she was 12 years old and hasn’t let funding concerns get in her way.
And Belnavis says that she is still intending to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. after she graduates, even though she is aware that the threatened cuts to federal funding could make research even more uncertain.
“We talk about it sometimes at lab meetings because a few of the other labs have gotten their funding cut significantly, which means one day it could be our lab as well,” Belnavis says.
But this doesn’t deter her. “I feel like a lot of people who do research do it because they really enjoy that process,” she says. “That being said, you have to have money in order to do that.”
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