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Ohio State finding new forms of research funding as federal falls flat

Ohio State conducts research on everything from climate change to cures for cancer and has consistently ranked in the top 20 among universities in total research expenditures. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

Colleges and universities across the country are finding new ways to support their research endeavors as the federal government’s funding has flattened over the years, and Ohio State is no exception.

Ohio State’s research and development expenditures, which are the total amount the university spends on research, hit a five-year low in 2016 of $847 million, after peaking two years prior at $983 million. Research expenditure is considered a direct reflection of incoming research money.

The state’s flagship university is a powerhouse research institution, conducting studies on everything from climate change to cures for cancer. Ohio State has consistently ranked in the top 20 among universities in total research expenditures, but fell to 22nd in the National Science Foundation rankings in 2016. Ten years ago, Ohio State was ranked ninth.

While that dip in expenditures and slip in rankings might not be representative of the university’s research as a whole, one thing is certain: Ohio State is branching out and looking for new forms of funding.

The university’s recently retired vice president of research, Carol Whitacre, said Ohio State is trying to “diversify its funding portfolio” by finding sources other than heavily relied upon grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health. This federal-government funding makes up around 75 percent of the college’s research funding.

“When I first came into this job, we were relying mostly on federal funds,” said Whitacre, who was with the university for 36 years before retiring in 2017. She had served as the vice president of research since 2008. “Federal is still our bread and butter, our largest source of money. But we have also spread our wings a little bit and gone much more after industry and foundations.”

Whitacre and university leaders know the climate of federal funding for research is changing.

We have these highly trained, young, very sharp scientists that are coming into universities as professors. Well, they spend so much of their time in their offices writing proposals to get responses [from the government] on, ‘What an idiot you are, we aren’t giving you any money to do that.’ — Mark Failla, professor emeritus of human nutrition

Since 2008, with inflation taken into account, federal funding across the board has essentially declined, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mark Failla, professor emeritus of human nutrition, said Ohio State’s decrease in funding is not abnormal.

“It is everywhere,” Failla said. “I think it is a national crisis, to be honest.”

Furthermore, in its first budget proposal in May, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to cut funding of NIH and NSF.

Ohio State has fared somewhat better than other schools, however, steadily gaining in NIH funding from 2012 to 2017. The university funding grew from $142 million to $171 million during that span, an almost 20 percent increase. But with inflation taken into account, that number has less shine.

University President Michael Drake considers federal grants to be the best indicator of success because the competition is so vast.

“We traditionally look very closely at NIH funding,” he told The Lantern in November. “That means a lot because there is a set pool of money and there is a national peer review process meant to select the best ideas.”

NIH accepting proposals from Ohio State indicates quality work and ideas, Drake said. He pointed to private fundraising and industry partnerships as new and increasingly important sources of the much-needed capital a place like Ohio State needs to continue to grow.

“We are up in our industry-related research,” Drake said. “We want to continue to have that moving forward.”

While industry-driven research might be on the rise, it is not always applicable to researchers such as Failla, who specializes in long-term projects focused on feeding people more efficiently.

“Most of the industry is not interested in making the long-term investments that there will be true outcomes from,” Failla said. “It is now always just nickel-and-dime stuff.”

In addition to industry research, Ohio State has seen an increase of donations given from outside private donors. The most recent completed fundraising campaign, But for Ohio State, raised more than $3 billion total, with more than $1 billion going directly toward research.

The Wexner Medical Center continues to grow and enhance its facilities for research, as well, with large chunks of those projects coming from fundraising.

It’s actually much harder today [to receive a federal grant] than it has been. There tends to be nationwide more researchers out there. So there is greater competition for the same dollar. — Carol Whitacre, recently retired vice president of research

“We had our best year in philanthropy [in 2016],” Drake said. “Overall, the medical center had its philanthropy up dramatically year over year, as we did on the rest of campus.”

Whitacre has seen the landscape of research funding shift dramatically in her tenure, to the point where the demand for research money now outpaces the supply from the federal government.

She said this new reality leads to increased competition for federal grants, which makes getting proposals accepted and funded an increasingly difficult task.

“It’s actually much harder today [to receive a federal grant] than it has been,” she said. “There tends to be nationwide more researchers out there. So there is greater competition for the same dollar.”

Researchers and professors at Ohio State hoping to receive grants have felt the squeeze firsthand.

“We have these highly trained, young, very sharp scientists that are coming into universities as professors,” Failla said. “Well, they spend so much of their time in their offices writing proposals to get responses [from the government] on, ‘What an idiot you are, we aren’t giving you any money to do that’.”

With so much of a researcher’s time being taken up by writing grant proposals, Failla said student researchers aren’t receiving the training that they used to.

“What happens is faculty aren’t bellied up to the research bench working right there with grad students, with undergrads, postdocs, etcetera, teaching them the tricks you learn along the way,” Failla said. “Little manipulations, how to really get that reaction to go, all those sorts of things that, during my generation, we were there with mentors right beside us saying, ‘No you idiot, this is how to properly pipet.’”

According to the NSF database, the federal government funded 939 full-time research positions at Ohio State in 2015, the most recent year data was available. In 2011, that number was 1,278.

“You turned the world upside down now, and who suffers?” Failla asked, before he answered his own question. “I think those young faculty do, but even senior faculty are having difficult times with funding, but also the next generation, the ones we are supposed to be training.”

The university created an office in 2015 designed to help researchers secure funding through grants by helping them craft more developed and thoughtful proposals.

Whitacre said the Proposal Development Center helps researchers ranging in experience from undergraduate students to world-renowned doctors.

The university recruited the director from neighboring Battelle’s proposal office, Ruth Ann Hendrickson, to lead its center.

“She has been amazingly effective,” Whitacre said.

Whitacre said the attention to detail and meticulous work on requests for proposals has bolstered Ohio State researchers’ chances of receiving grants.

Since its inception, Whitacre said the office has a 50 percent success rate in proposals it submits.

“That’s unheard of,” Whitacre said. “This is a strategy we’ve done that other universities really haven’t.” The typical success rate for NIH proposals in 2016 was 19 percent.

Ohio State has created several other programs to raise funds for research, such as its own crowdfunding site similar to GoFundMe called Buckeye Funder.

Drake touted longstanding partnerships with companies, such as Honda, as important forms of industry-driven research funding.

The Dow Chemical Company lists Ohio State as one of its many academic institutions it collaborates with to “advance scientific research and develop the world’s next generation of scientists and leaders,” according to the company’s website.

And Battelle, the research giant where Hendrickson previously worked, endows several research positions at Ohio State.

Researchers and Whitacre almost unanimously agree that even with those outside sources growing, at the end of the day it comes down to federal funding.

Failla said his research hinges on receiving federal grants, calling it a matter of “survival.”

“Without grants you can’t do research,” Failla said. “Bottom line.”

One comment

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