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Despite strong year for KU research, funding trend is lower

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

LAWRENCE – During the past four years, externally sponsored research expenditures at all University of Kansas campuses totaled more than $1 billion. It was the strongest four-year span in KU history. Among the many highlights:

  • Creation of Frontiers: The Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the KU Medical Center, offering faster patient access to the benefits of health research;
  • Development of a national center in the Life Span Institute to help schools enact a KU model for improving academic outcomes for general and special education students; and
  • Fulfillment of a National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant that leveraged $1.3 million in private gifts to promote collaborative faculty research projects in the humanities.

Even so, the future funding trend for university research is sobering at KU and nationwide. In the face of the continuing federal budget sequester – and a decade of declining purchasing power for federally funded research – KU’s research expenditures from all sources fell during FY 2014. Spending from externally sponsored grants totaled $238.8 million last year, compared with $260.5 million in 2013 and $275.2 million in 2012 (the high point for supplemental research spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

“Other universities are experiencing the same pressures we are,” said Mary Lee Hummert, interim vice chancellor for research. “KU’s strong focus at both campuses on human health and development attracts support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Education. About half our research funding comes from those agencies, so flat or falling levels of support hits KU especially hard.”

She noted that the success rate for NIH proposals now ranges from about 1 in 10 to about 1 in 4, depending on the institute.

The National Science Foundation’s recent annual report on research funding ranked KU 38th among national public research universities in 2013, based on KU’s federally funded research and development expenditures that year. The report also showed that among the top 50 public and private research universities, 27 received less federal research funding in 2013 than they did in 2012. That number likely increased in 2014. At KU, for example, federal research funding dropped last year for only the second time in the past decade.

“KU researchers have kept on earning grants in spite of many obstacles,” said Richard Barohn, vice chancellor for research at the KU Medical Center. “Even with the decline in NIH dollars there are new opportunities for health-related research funding. For example, we’ve had success obtaining funding in the past year from the nonprofit Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. So while some resources are diminishing, others are opening up. We have to be flexible and adapt to a changing environment.”

KU currently receives about 85 percent of its research support from the federal government. The Kansas congressional delegation includes two members, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who have been recognized by the national Science Coalition advocacy organization during the past year. Moran received a Champion of Science Award at KU’s Dole Institute of Politics in 2014, while Yoder is featured in a video segment on the Science Coalition website. Both stress that research funding is a bipartisan issue. “Everybody has a reason to be a champion for science in Washington,” Yoder said. 

“The cause of science research needs more advocates everywhere,” Hummert said. “The nation’s health, well-being and global competitiveness depend on a renewed and robust federal partnership with KU and other research universities.”