As UConn builds more labs, research funding shrinks

UConn research historyFarmington -- Leslie Loew, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, had planned to study the use of fluorescent dye and light to help doctors better repair life-threatening heart rhythms, but his funding was cut so that research will have to wait.

Many research projects have stalled at the University of Connecticut as research funding dips. Over the past five fiscal years, annual research spending at UConn has declined by $61 million -- a 26 percent reduction.

The problem is that the federal funding spigot responsible for much of that research is narrowing. Federal stimulus funding ran out in 2012, and the federal government implemented across-the-board spending cuts in March -- called sequestration -- which affects research awards.

“It’s a great big brick coming down on us,” said Victor Hesselbrock, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the UConn Health Center.

But this drastic decline in research funding nationwide hasn’t deterred UConn officials as they move forward with their plans to spend $1.6 billion to build new labs and other facilities for additional research and to add thousands of additional science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

When state lawmakers approved that spending plan -– dubbed “Next Generation” -- university officials promised to increase research spending by $43 million by next July and even more over the next decade.

"By 2024, Next Generation Connecticut will deliver $146 million per year in new research expenditures," UConn President Susan Herbst told lawmakers on the legislature's budget-writing committee this spring.

“We are poised for growth,” said Jeff Seemann, the system’s vice president for research, told The Mirror this week. “We have to be successful in bringing money from the outside.”

Where will research funding come from?

Ranked solely on securing federal grants, the National Science Foundation ranks UConn 81st in the country among research universities. (Yale University, at No. 15, has historically received even more research money from Washington.) A review of the history of UConn’s fundraising efforts raises questions about the ability of philanthropy to fill the gap created by federal cuts.

"UConn underperforms peers in all areas of giving except parent contributions," a 2011 report by consultants McKinsey & Co. said, noting that UConn's fundraising efforts are understaffed, and that current fundraisers are underperforming when compared with peers.

The university's plans do call for hiring hundreds of additional faculty members, and with that is the expectation that the new staff will bring in additional research money. A new leader for the UConn Foundation was also hired in an effort to spur more donations.

As UConn works to find research dollars in a rough economy, students interested in science, technology and math started classes this week.

“The buildings are being built. The labs are being built. But if there’s no opportunity for them to get the training to go forward, it’s an empty promise,” said David Rowe, a UConn researcher whose daughter just started her freshman year at the university.

Researchers told U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy during a forum at the health center that they are worried that future researchers are going to select different career paths if this trend continues.

"There aren't jobs in research," Chris Heinen, an associate professor of medicine who specializes in cancer research, told the senator this week.

"With all these cuts, I just keep thinking about how am I going to employ people in my lab," said Kamal Khanna, a professor in the Department of Immunology.

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