Debt Ceiling Affects University of Iowa Research Funding

By Gregg Hennigan

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The U.S. debt ceiling debate seems to have ramifications in every corner of the nation and the economy, and count University of Iowa researchers among those with a stake in the outcome.

Cuts in spending likely would result in a reduction of money distributed by federal agencies to schools for research, and the UI counts on hundreds of millions of dollars of that funding each year.

The UI announced Thursday that grant and contract funding totaled $456.6 million in fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30. Of that, 66 percent came from federal sources.

The total was a 2.1 percent decrease from last year's $466.5 million, breaking a streak of six consecutive years of record external funding.

It was still the UI's second-highest total ever, however, and officials said they are happy with the amount given the state of the economy and the flattening, and in some cases decline, of research budgets at federal agencies. Also, the fiscal year 2010 number was boosted by $40.8 million in federal stimulus funds, which dropped to $33.3 million last year.

Jordan Cohen, the UI's vice president for research and economic development, said while it's not known what will happen with the debt ceiling and the federal budget, it's clear the next few years will be tough on federal spending. It's now unrealistic to expect the UI to reach record levels of external funding each year, he said.

"Remaining competitive, holding our own ... is at least as important as chasing the dollars," he said.

He said the UI is in a position to do that, noting that a National Science Foundation survey found that the UI moved up from 24th to 21st among public universities for federal expenditures for research and development in 2009, the most recent year available.

One way the UI is trying to stay competitive is through "cluster hires" in which a number of faculty from different disciplines are hired to focus on a particular subject. For example, the UI just announced a cluster initiative to study obesity. Others areas being studied are aging and water sustainability.

UI Provost Barry Butler said the federal officials who decide how to distribute funding like large projects, which is a consideration but not a deciding factor when the UI selects proposals for the cluster initiative.

Derek Willard, UI special assistant to the president for governmental relations and associate vice president for research, said U.S. investment in research remains high compared with other nations and the American public continues to value research, particularly on health care.

The UI College of Medicine brought in the most external funding at $221.3 million, followed by the College of Public Health at $52.1 million.

The largest source of funds for the UI was the National Institutes of Health, which provided more than $205 million.

Research plays a vital role to the UI and, with the university seen as an economic engine, to the state, Cohen said. As an example, a number of the businesses at the UI Research Park started as research projects at the UI, he said.
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