UF's flow of research dollars may slow to trickle
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.
For a decade, the University of Florida has seen an unprecedented gusher of research dollars flowing its way, cultivating new inventions and innovations that contributed to a growth spurt in Gainesville's economy.
But because of federal sequestration, the automatic spending cuts triggered by the austerity-minded Budget Control Act of 2011, that gusher could become a trickle if members of Congress don't resolve their differences over spending and taxing priorities.
"It's the first time it's being decreased in a long time," said David Norton, vice president of research for the university.
UF's research portfolio for 2012 totaled $644 million, Norton said, and more than two-thirds of that was federal money. Health sciences got about half, or $330 million, while the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences got about 17 percent, or $112 million, and engineering got 12 percent, or $76 million.
With austerity measures in effect, UF this fiscal year is looking at a $14 million cut in federal research funding across the board and another $20 million cut in 2014 if the levels hold, he said.
That might be a reduction of 5 to 10 percent, but it's the first time in years the school will see a drop in funding.
"In contrast, we saw increases every year for the past 10 years," Norton said.
The university has more than 1,000 active research projects, he said.
Some innovations that have blossomed with the help of federal research dollars include a new breed of tomato that tastes great and resists bruising, advances in muscular dystrophy treatment and a startup company that specializes in medical training.
Every research dollar translates into about $3 for the local economy, economists say. Research dollars from the National Institutes of Health alone translate into roughly a $1 billion annual boost to the state economy. In 2010, research funding created nearly 14,000 jobs nationwide, according to the American Cancer Society.
Turning the faucet from a flow to a trickle will mean fewer new projects getting started.
Some agencies simply will not commit to new projects, Norton said, while other agencies are winding down projects as the money runs out.
The situation would only get worse if the austerity measures hold, he said. An estimated $50 billion in federal research dollars nationally will disappear over the next five years under the current plan.
"That's a lot of inventions and innovations that aren't happening here," he said.
Federal research dollars pay for faculty salaries, equipment, facilities and graduate and post-doctoral students who assist in the research, explained Dr. David S. Guzick, senior vice president for Health Affairs for the UF&Shands Health System.
The cuts in health sciences research grants are compounded by sequestration cuts to Medicare as well, for a combined loss of $16 million at UF, he said.
While the cuts can be absorbed without leading to layoffs or cutting hours, they do affect the ability to even think about growth, Guzick said.
That, in turn, affects the ability to recruit top talent, he said, and UF must be cautious in future expansion.
"It's frustrating. … If all of a sudden funding isn't there, you are left with people you can't support," Guzick said.
Shadow Health Inc., begun by UF professor Ben Lock, began at the UF Innovation Hub and moved last year because it had outgrown its original space. Its 40 employees currently occupy the old 3,000-square-foot former American Apparel building downtown.
Shadow Health CEO David Massias said he expects to have twice that number of employees by year's end. Federal research money and UF's institutional backing give new products and technology an immediate credibility that helps jump-start entrepreneurial efforts, he said.
"It gives you an exponential starting point," Massias said.
Without the aid of government research, startups will have a longer road ahead to develop a prototype and a tougher time getting investors already reluctant to spend in the current economic climate.
"In the current economic climate, that's not good," Massias said.
To counter the potential harm the research cuts could cause, UF and other land-grant universities from 13 states are making a full-court lobbying press — urging members of Congress not to cut too deeply, said Jack M. Payne, senior vice president for IFAS.
Federal research money accounts for more than a third of the IFAS budget, Payne said. IFAS is looking at losing $3.25 million from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and an additional $8 million from the Hatch and Smith Lever Acts.
That money not only pays for research but provides outreach programs, food stamps, nutritional programs and supports the agricultural extension offices in Florida's 67 counties, Payne said.
"We'd have to cut funding to those programs if the federal funding is cut," he said.
There is a chance Florida lawmakers can find money needed to replace the federal dollars that are disappearing, Payne said. But in these austere times, "everything is up in the air."