The government shutdown will likely have minimal effects on the University, but it may push more universities to seek private funds for research
Tuesday was our first day without a government. Without a fully functioning government, that is. And when the shutdown ends, dysfunction is likely to linger.
Congress’ failure to pass legislation to fund most government operations will likely have minimal effects on the University. If Congress is able to resolve the shutdown within a few days, the University’s research operations will emerge relatively unscathed. But the shutdown nonetheless delivers a shock to American higher education by reminding us that depending on public dollars means depending on the whims of partisan lawmakers.
The first sentence of this editorial borders on crude provocation. But so does the discourse we have seen in Congress in the past few weeks. As each party attempts to blame the other for the shutdown, more than 800,000 federal workers stand to be sent home without pay. The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health — two major sources of research funding — skid to a halt along with many other government agencies. The NIH is the largest funder of research at the University. The school received nearly $106 million in NIH funds in fiscal year 2013. Researchers can continue to work as long as that funding holds out.
The University nets more than $300 million in federal research funds each year. About a year ago, Vice President for Research Thomas Skalak told The Daily Progress that for every $1 of research funding the University secured from state and local sources, it pulls in $8.70 of federal support. The national average is closer to $3.10 for every $1 of state and local money. So the University, like many top schools, relies heavily on federal dollars for the continued vibrancy of its research.
For schools still reeling from sequestration, the shutdown casts a pall on federal research funding. Federal grants are great when schools can score them — but a trend of budget impasses has left research dollars vulnerable.
In light of a pattern of governmental vicissitudes that affect research funding, schools are likely to look more to partnerships with private industry for research dollars. Indeed, they would be wise to do so. Harvard, which received 6 percent of its operating revenue from federal grants in 2010, announced that same year that it would begin to work more with private firms, such as pharmaceutical companies, to sponsor scientific research.
Most top schools already draw research money from both the government and private companies. But a migration from government-sponsored research to industry-sponsored research, if it becomes pronounced, raises two potential problems.
First, it could reduce the expectation that the government has a responsibility to support research. If the government guts research funding, and schools take flight to industry in order to get by, lawmakers might argue that such a development proves that schools did not need federal funding in the first place.
Second, a move to primarily industry-sponsored projects threatens support for basic research. By “basic research” we mean research carried out to further academic knowledge of a particular discipline. Basic research may or may not have immediate commercial benefits. Its goal is to produce knowledge. Private firms are unlikely to be interested in sponsoring basic research. Industrial dollars will go toward applied research, in the hopes that the academic work they underwrite will lead to profitable technologies or medical devices.
The shutdown, taken as an isolated incident, will not harm the University’s research operations much, if at all. But taken as a marker of a broader trend of government dysfunction, it could strike a blow to research, especially basic research, at universities nationwide.