Rising costs, shrinking grants create 'huge funding crunch' for U.S. research

The acre-large greenhouse at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette's Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology failed at the worst possible time.

The region had been suffering through a week of 95-degree heat last year when the greenhouse's climate control and backup systems sputtered out. The intense heat -- amplified by the structure's clear plastic walls -- destroyed two experiments and jeopardized the results of many others.

"You just feel sick because that's the worst thing that can ever happen, when someone's experiment is ruined," said Susan Mopper, the center's director. "You're just helpless, really. And we're responsible."

The shutdown didn't come as a surprise.

The greenhouse's climate control system had acted up before, and the facility has needed major renovations for the past four years. But money was too tight to address the problems. The center has suffered through funding cuts and was slated to be dissolved this month until university administrators recently changed their minds.


The Louisiana center's troubles are representative of larger funding woes at research institutions across the country.

"Science in the United States is under a huge funding crunch," said John Wiltshire, director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory.

The causes of the funding troubles vary by institution. Increasing operational costs, decreasing state funding and spotty federal funding are among the culprits. Many administrators said changing priorities in scientific research were to blame. And sequestration-related cuts are poised to pull more resources from the pot.

Wiltshire's Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory suffered recently from a loss in federal funding.

The lab used to receive $3 million in federal funding a year, but program cuts have reduced its allocation to less than $1 million this year. As a result, Wiltshire said, his unit approached private foundations, industry and foreign groups for funding. It also laid off staff and re-evaluated the use of some resources.

On the other side of the country, different problems put the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., on alert.

Joan Ruderman, director and president of that lab, said the institution has seen an increase in federal grant money. But it has been hit by higher operating costs. And the money that has come in often arrives with strings attached, allocated for programs with funding needs that aren't as strong.

"Because we're not a university, we don't have access to the kind of streams that other institutions have," she said. Last month, the Marine Biological Laboratory announced plans to affiliate with the University of Chicago to firm up its finances (Greenwire, June 12).

Indeed, research and development funding has increased overall during the past several years, but it has not kept pace with gross domestic product expansion. And the Marine Biological Laboratory isn't alone in noticing an uptick in operating costs.

Ian Billick, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and a member of the steering committee for the Organization of Biological Field Stations report, said overall infrastructure costs for research stations are increasing.

"Just as technology develops and as the questions that we're asking get harder, it tends to make the science more infrastructure-intensive," Billick said. So, the more complicated questions mean researchers have to look at data collected on a larger scale.

For the Louisiana environmental center's Mopper, her facility's troubles stem from a decrease in state funding allocated to higher education.

"I think people like me, or basic research anyway, is becoming less valued in academia in general," Mopper said.

Sequestration and beyond

And federal sequestration cuts add yet another variable to the equation.

Billick, whose Rocky Mountain lab hasn't had funding worries, said researchers have yet to feel the full impact of sequestration. Already, the National Science Foundation, which funds about two-thirds of fundamental research, awards funding to 3 percent to 5 percent of applicants in some grant categories, he said.

"The funding for individual scientists is at a crisis point. I think that sequestration ... is going to make a bad situation even worse," he said.

And independent research institutions are particularly vulnerable to sequestration because they're so reliant on federal funding, said Larry Keinath, president of the Association of Independent Research Institutes and vice president of the Wistar Institute. Sequestration will take a 5 percent toll on members who receive federal funds, he said.

"I certainly would call it a concern. It's something that we're all looking at," Keinath said. He added that many members of his organization have diversified their funding sources, like creating dedicated fundraising efforts or licensing out their intellectual property.

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