The Irony of STEM Funding

Despite the Obama administration’s push for science and tech education, research institutions have battled budget cuts for years. Will new spending measures fix the damage?

Demonstrators participate in a "Rally for Medical Research," in April 2013, to focus on sequestration’s cuts to NIH's funding. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

The $1.5 trillion spending measure that just passed in Congress is particularly good news for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will see its budget increase by $2 billion, or 6 percent, the largest increase in over a decade. In recent years, the agency, and the research universities across the country that receive significant funding from it, have struggled with funding cuts and a failure to keep up with inflation that has hindered their work.

Back in 2013, budget cuts, known as sequestration, required the NIH to slash its budget by 5 percent, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) had to trim its own by 2 percent, or $586 million. Further exacerbating this deficit, funding to the NIH hasn’t kept pace with the rate of inflation: The Biomedical Research and Development Price Index, which measures the costs of conducting biomedical research, for example, increased by 1.9 percent in 2013.

Both the NIH and NSF have long devoted substantial portions of their funds to research and education grants at private and public institutions, but sequestration has taken a toll on investment in science at schools. It led to the elimination of hundreds of competitive research grants at the NIH, while the NSF reduced the number of new grants awarded by roughly 1,000 around the same time.

Still, although support for research at the higher-education level diminished, the focus on K-12 STEM education remained strong. In 2015, the Department of Education invested hundreds of millions in programs aimed at enlisting stronger math and science teachers, implementing best practices in STEM teaching, and motivating disadvantaged and minority students to pursue degrees in STEM fields. What happens if those students attempt to enroll in financially beleaguered research universities isn’t yet clear. Research opportunities in U.S. higher education remain inconsistent, which could be softening the country’s edge.

The cuts have raised concerns among university officials about the prospects for innovation in the United States. Jennifer Poulakidas, the vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), said that in many cases, schools opted to deplete their “rainy day funds” to bridge deficits in funding and maintain ongoing research. The 2016 budget hike doesn’t necessarily mean the return of previously jettisoned grants, she said, but it does bode well for “more opportunities for good science to be funded.”

Some institutions have, however, already seen opportunities for young researchers curtailed by the cuts, as reported at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the typical age at which scientists are awarded their first grant has risen substantially and competition for grants is increasingly fierce. The sequester also translated into schools accepting fewer graduate students than they had in the past. And when the research dollars that support them disappear, and funding for science fails to keep up with inflation, Poulakidas said, “researchers get poached by universities in other countries.”

Indeed, on a global scale, competing nations are upping their spending on research and development. In fact, China is anticipated to outdo the U.S. in this field by 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “They see how good that model has been for the U.S., how that has grown our economy and made us strong in all kinds of sectors,” Poulakidas said. “We’re behind, because we’re not doing what we ought to be doing compared to our prior investments in science, research, and higher education.”

If other countries continue to outspend the United States, the American scientific community will find itself in what the APLU and other scientific organizations are calling an innovation deficit. And diminished research and development at the university level, they say, has broad implications for other industries, including national security and health care.

Earlier this year, deans from 18 medical schools, including the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University, wrote an editorial in Science Translational Medicine explaining the consequences of this international threat. “Academic medical centers remain both the major care site and the option of last resort for the most complex and challenging patients,” they wrote, contributing to critical research as well as providing care to patients who lack health insurance. “Loss of funding ... will slow progress in our ability to address the health of our patients and lessen our contribution, through new knowledge and technology development, to the growth of the nation’s economy.”

At the same time, federal funding for other sectors of higher education has grown: According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, from 2000 to 2012, it increased from $43 billion to $83 billion. A significant portion of this money is devoted to Pell grants, which support low-income students, who are attending college in greater numbers than ever before; overall enrollment jumped by 60 percent between 1990 and 2013. Other funding goes toward additional forms of financial aid, as well as veterans’ educational benefits.

The irony of the cuts in funding for academic science is that the Obama administration has simultaneously made a big push for greater investment on STEM education. The president has called upon American universities to graduate 1 million more STEM majors than they do currently, a move that would ostensibly broaden the pool of applicants to graduate from science programs—the same ones that downsized in the wake of the sequester. “Part of what we try to do is raise awareness about that,” Poulakidas said, of the discrepancy between STEM advocacy and funding for graduate researchers in those fields. “When we talk to legislators, everybody says they love the NSF and NIH, that they are strong supporters of these agencies. But the bottom line is, where’s the beef?”

Congress delivered quite a bit of “beef” to the NIH when it passed the spending bill in December. In a statement, NIH Director Francis Collins called the hike “the most encouraging budget outcome in 12 years.”

For universities, Poulakidas said, the budget increase is “overwhelmingly good news. It’s not so much about going back to the pre-sequester days. It’s about new opportunities and moving forward.” The challenge for innovation funding in the United States, she said, is to both catch up and keep up. “This one year alone is not going to turn everything on its head,” Poulakidas said, “but if we can continue along these lines, we’ll be putting ourselves in a stronger position.”

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