Federal research support slips at UI, ISU

But both turn to corporations and donors to show overall growth

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Both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University brought in more money for research and scholarship from outside sources in the budget year that just ended than in the year before, but federal support for research fell by millions of dollars at each school.

The federal government is a prime supporter of university research through agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. If the downward level continues — as the Trump administration has recommended for many of the agencies — university officials are worried what that could mean for the pace of innovation and the economy.

The UI brought in $224.4 million from federal sources for research and scholarship in the 2017 budget year, down from $240.3 million in 2016. ISU reported $218.9 million in federal funding, compared with $229.5 million before.

But at the same time as the declines, the total external funding increased for both institutions — thanks to efforts to diversify their funding portfolios by tapping more industry and corporate partners and individual donors.

In announcements Monday, the UI reported total external funding at $557.7 million for 2017, up from $551.9 million. ISU reported its total at $503.6 million in 2017, up from $425.8 million.

If sustained, a decline in federal dollars could stall discovery and cause harm not only locally but perhaps even on a large scale, according to Daniel Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development.

“Iowa City, Coralville, the whole Corridor region, and the university are deeply economically and social entwined,” Reed said. “Research funding supports thousands of faculty, staff and students that live and work here, and when it’s threatened, it affects our future.”

The shift has prompted Reed and other administrators to raise awareness about the need for robust support of research and the institutions that do it.

“The near-term risk isn’t that large,” he said. “But the long-term is.”

By hanging banners around downtown Iowa City boasting faculty accomplishments and by urging lawmakers to stand up for research, Reed said, the university is expending significant effort to highlight the risks of dramatic cuts.

“When you reach on the shelf for innovation, you don’t want it to be bare,” Reed said.

Administrators said the drop might partially be related to timing around the federal government’s different budget year and when it releases funds for grants. It could also be related to a change in presidential administration — typical for any change associated with a new president.

But federal funding for research has struggled to keep pace with inflation over the years, putting the squeeze on researchers and ramping up competition among the universities. And tighter budgets have prompted agencies to slice their awards thinner.

Although the UI saw more awards this year for competitively awarded research and scholarship — 2,446 compared with 2,352 — the average award size was down about $5,000 from roughly $186,000 in 2016.

President Donald Trump, in his budget proposal, suggested “fairly draconian cuts” to research-related funding, Reed said.

Reed said he signed on to a letter with his counterparts at universities across the country Monday voicing concern about potential threats to Department of Defense funding cuts for biomedical research.

The university over the next few months also is planning to release a book that puts an Iowa spin on a national initiative quipped “The Future Postponed,” highlighting the impact of an innovation deficit.

“We’re trying to get the word out in a non-partisan and non-political way that we are talking about our children’s future here,” Reed said.

Considering the increased competition, ISU Vice President for Research Sarah Nusser said she’s encouraged by her institution’s federal funding for 2017.

“I was actually very pleased with the success we had in our federal funding given that federal funding is at best flat and effectively declining in many agencies,” she said.

But one of the main reasons ISU external funding total broke another record this year was thanks to one of its “other” sources — an individual gift valued at $93 million for the benefit of programs and students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Next year’s report, Nusser said, will be more telling about whether the administration is affecting federal research money.

“He can propose that, but it’s really Congress that sets the budget, “ she said.

The University of Northern Iowa, which receives far less external funding, saw a slight uptick in federal funding from $20.4 to $22.2 million. Nonetheless, it saw its total external funding go down from $39.1 million in 2016 to $37.8 million in 2017.

University external funding

External funding to support research and scholarship at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University increased over last year – and set a record at ISU – but funding from federal sources played a smaller role at both schools.

Source: University of Iowa, Iowa State University. Chart by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

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