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Outlook uncertain for research money

BY JOE CAVALIERE | JANUARY 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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UI researchers may find themselves the latest victims of poor economic times.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health doled out more than $10 billion in grant money to various research facilities around the country — an unusually large amount — as part of federal stimulus funds.

But this growth can not realistically continue.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Francis S. Collins, the new director for the NIH, said the agency would not be as generous this upcoming year.

“I don’t think anybody right now imagines an outcome where the annual expenditures on biomedical research in fiscal ’11 will be as good as they were in fiscal ’10,” he said.

At the UI, researchers felt the effects of more funding; research departments received around $429.5 million in external funding in fiscal 2009, an increase of around $50 million over the previous year.

UI researchers received about $133 million last year from NIH alone.

Jordan Cohen, the UI’s interim vice president for Research, responded to this announcement with confidence, as well as some reservation.

“We are well aware of the pressures federally, but we will continue to be successful,” he said. “The uncertainty is how successful.”

The federal government will make more decisions regarding funding in upcoming months.

But until then, UI researchers can only speculate as to how the following year will turn out. After President Obama delivers a budget message in February, Congress will begin hearings in the spring that will give a clearer financial picture for next fiscal year.

“The environment that we’re in, we wait every year until Congress makes some more decisions,” Cohen said. “The good news is that Obama has spoken out very aggressively and positively about increasing science funding.”

Mike Apicella, a UI professor and head of microbiology, also said he has some reservations about the news, but will wait for the president’s address before making any judgment calls.

“Certainly, no one expects it to go up much,” Apicella said.

In the Chronicle interview, Collins outlined a handful of goals he has set recently, including steering grants toward younger researchers.

Some UI officials and researchers said they support another of Collins’ wishes — to disseminate scientific findings more widely.

“The public needs to know more about what we do, and why we do it,” Cohen said.

Despite optimism from some, Derek Willard, the UI associate vice president for Research, expressed some worries about the future of UI research.

“We are concerned that there may be a big drop-off in NIH funding,” he said but noted that right now, it’s mostly just speculation.


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