UConn heads for funding cliff for research

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have recently learned how to create grass that is immune from many weather conditions.

UConn scientists are also determined to show that feeding chickens cinnamon and oregano helps curb the persistence of salmonella.

uconn chart

What they haven’t found is an increase in research dollars, as funding for research is on the decline — by about 10 percent in the last two years.

The problem is that the federal funding spigot responsible for much of that research is closing, top officials say. Most of the losses have come from health research.

“Funding is becoming more and more difficult to get,” UConn’s Vice President for Research Suman Singha told trustees Thursday.

UConn has enjoyed steady increases in research funding for years, but on Thursday the Board of Trustees was told funding declined last fiscal year by $7.1 million. What’s more, because of the loss of tens of millions more in one-time federal stimulus money, UConn was forced to cut research spending by another $10.6 million this year.

“We’ve lost a lot, a lot, a lot of funding,” Singha said, repeating himself to emphasize the extent of the loss. Last fiscal year, the $52.9 million in stimulus money the university received was almost 25 percent of all of its research money.

Funding battles in Washington and the end of stimulus money have placed other universities in similar predicaments.

“What other people call pork spending is our research money,” said Susan Herbst, UConn’s new president. During her first days on the job she called landing more research money a top priority.

“We’re doing incredibly well. That said, we need to move up. The federal dollars from places like the [National Science Foundation] or the [National Institutes of Health] are critical to the growth of the university,” she said during an interview.

But officials at NIH and other experts predict that thousands of grants will be eliminated. Last year, UConn received $61.4 million in grants from NIH.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UConn 19th in the U.S. among public research institutions in September. Ranked solely on securing federal grants, the National Science Foundation ranks UConn 80th in the country in their most recent survey.

Thousands of Connecticut residents work in research at UConn, and the school is now trying to determine how to maintain this $225 million-plus industry.

Herbst said there is no shortage of people with great research topics.

“It’s not about being able to find the faculty, it’s about finding the money to pay them,” she said.

“There is a funding cliff that we are facing,” Richard Gray, UConn’s chief financial officer, said during an interview. He says the university has found ways to make up for the drastic declines in federal funding in other parts of the budget.

Almost half of UConn’s research dollars come from the federal government, with tuition and fees and private industry picking up most of the remaining tab. The state has historically contributed just 5 percent towards research at UConn.

But Herbst said she is optimistic the state will step up their contributions for operating expenses now that it has invested hundreds of millions in construction and capital costs for the expansion of the UConn Health Center in Farmington, opening of the privately run Jackson Laboratories and building a technology park at the Storrs campus. None of the $1.17 billion the state is contributing for these initiatives includes funding for research at UConn.

“Stimulus money is gone, now we have to step it up,” she said, noting that landing money from private investments is key, too.

UConn officials have promised to raise tens of millions of dollars to help build the expanded health center and tech park, but it remains to be seen if they will be able to do that and increase donations for research simultaneously. A review of the history of the university’s fundraising efforts released last week cast doubt on the current system paying off.

“UConn underperforms peers in all areas of giving except parent contributions,” the report by McKinsey & Co. says, noting that UConn’s fundraising is understaffed and that current fundraisers are underperforming when compared with peers.

Herbst says that raising additional private money will be a difficult task.

“It’s a source of revenue that’s hard to come by in this economy,” she said.

An optimistic Singha told the board that the recent initiatives spearheaded by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has put the state in a great position to land more federal money, even in this rocky environment.

“We believe we are in a great place to leverage these initiatives with the White House,” he said.