Science Funding and U.

Richard Schultz, Charles and William L. Day Distinguished Professor of Biology and Associate Dean for the Natural Sciences, provides insight on the pressures of securing federal funding for basic research.
July 1, 2013

When Associate Professors of Mathematics Phillip Gressman and Robert Strain discovered a solution to the 140-year-old, seven-dimensional Boltzmann equation, they probably didn’t expect their findings to be trumpeted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The solution, which tracks the behavior of gas molecules and will lead to a better understanding of the physical world, was cited by California Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney—a fellow Ph.D. in mathematics—to combat the notion that some sectors of science have less impact. The speech comes amidst growing concern that a poor economy will jeopardize funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. Many people feel that the reduced level of federal support is compromising our basic research enterprise. We spoke with Richard Schultz, Charles and William L. Day Distinguished Professor of Biology and Associate Dean for the Natural Sciences, about the current funding climate for basic research.

Blake Cole: How have the recession and the current sequestration affected NSF funding over the last few years?

Richard Schultz
: It’s had a substantial impact. Luckily, the way the NSF is funded gives researchers a bit more stability. Let us say that I am awarded a grant over three years. NSF essentially commits the entire amount out of its current budget. So if there’s a change in government funding the following year, it has minimal impact on the scientist. On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the major source of funding for biomedical research, only commits on a year-to-year basis, leaving future funding more vulnerable. As far as the sequestration goes, it translates to a reduction in the number of new grants and cooperative agreements that will be awarded this year, as well as reduced amounts of funding for ongoing grants. So the long and short of it is: Have they been impacted? Yes. Has it generated some uncertainty from faculty about whether they will be funded for a new grant? Absolutely. But promised funding is still there.

BC: What areas of research is the NSF most likely to fund?

RS: NSF is all about basic research. NSF supports basic research in the biological and physical sciences, as well as engineering, and social and behavioral science. For example, the “purpose” of research in the biological sciences is to understand how living organisms function, how organisms interact with one another and their environment, i.e., the physical world, things of that ilk. Very often such basic research leads to things that affect our lives. Back in the 1940s and '50s, for example, scientists developed a method call NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) to study the structure of small molecules in solution. What emerged from NMR was magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, a very powerful technique that is used to “see” in exquisite detail internal structures in your body. This ability to see had direct and immediate applications for treatment of human disease. This outcome is something that we take for granted now, but it took decades for this very basic research to be translated into practical applications that have economic impact.

BC: You mentioned NIH. How does funding between the two differ?

RS: One of the biggest differences, in addition to the way they allocate funds, is the grant review process. NIH has Study Sections, each composed of about 20 scientists who evaluate grants in a particular research area and rank the scientific merit of each grant. This ranking then goes to what is called Council, which includes members of NIH, scientists as well as lay people. In general if you have a score that’s in the fundable range, it’s funded. If it’s below the pay line, it’s not. Council only seldom overrides the ranking. It’s very analytical and impersonal.

At NSF there is what’s called a “Panel.” It’s equivalent to an NIH Study Section. But the grants are also sent out to other scientists, who evaluate the scientific merit of the grants. So there are more written comments and feedback about the grant. But here is where the two systems differ. Let us say that there is an NSF grant that is not highly ranked but the science is acceptable. The grant was submitted, however, by an investigator whose laboratory is the only laboratory in this country doing a particular type of research. The Program Director, who oversees the Panel, has the authority to recommend that the grant be funded to ensure that this line of research continues. At NSF the panel only makes recommendations; it is advisory. That’s very different than NIH.

Another major difference is that NIH reviews grants three times during the course of a year, whereas NSF only considers grants one time in a year.  A consequence of this difference is that NSF investigators not funded on the initial submission are more negatively impacted because the gap in funding is longer and institutions do not have sufficient amounts of internal bridge funding to support the research during the unfunded interval. Disruption in funding can lead to the demise of a research group.

BC: Are any areas of research at particular risk for losing funding?

RS: In general, given the current economic climate, there’s greater pressure for investigators to explain or justify the impact of the proposed research. And that’s an unfair burden, because you don’t always know what will be the impact. It takes out the curiosity factor of letting scientists explore leads and discover what will ultimately become important. As far as risk areas, though, the NSF is very aware of the need for diverse research. Applied math, for example, is becoming increasingly important. There’s a whole host of applications—encryption, you name it—that have very practical returns.

A major concern I have is that there will be reduced amounts of funds available in grants to support graduate students, which will have a huge impact because the cost is shifted back onto the institution to support students at a time when institutions do not have the financial capacity to absorb such a cost. Reduced federal support for the basic research enterprise is also compromising our pipeline; more and more graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the system are finding pursuing a career in basic research unattractive because the funding climate is so dire. And that’s a shame for this country and the world.

: What are some Penn programs that have been made possible by NSF funding?

RS: We are participating in a cooperative grant between several laboratories called Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE), where faculty in our Department of Biology are over in Mongolia engaging undergraduate and graduate students who are studying global climate change. You have this group of students over there, experiencing a unique landscape and getting hands-on experience working on crucial questions, made possible largely by the NSF. This is what’s at risk.

BC: What challenges does NSF face moving forward?

RS: The system simply implodes when there’s not enough money. The grant review process becomes capricious and arbitrary. The pay-line at NSF and NIH is around the 10th percentile. A Study Section often has to review some 60 grants. It’s extraordinarily difficult, virtually impossible, to identify “the” six grants out of 60 that should be funded. And so the system is really struggling now because there’s not enough money in it to support the work that should be supported. My experience from serving on NIH Study Sections and NSF Panels is that about one-third of the grant applications warrant support. And the danger is that because it typically takes years before one “sees” the impact of basic research on our society, economy, etc., the public can be seduced, lulled into a sense that the system is functioning fine. But many faculty are nervous that the diminished support for basic research will have a negative impact on an entire generation of U.S. scientists. In the long run, we may be paying the consequences for the lack of support now, for example, when we’re forced to pay for intellectual property that should have been developed here. It’s a real possibility that it’s going to come back to haunt us.