No one said it would be easy. But it is, perhaps, too soon to know all the various ways in which reduced government funding will affect the various operations at an institution like Boise State. The sequestration has managed to spread a lot of doubt, uncertainty and fear. However, researchers at Boise State are showing they have the drive to move forward in the face of uncertainty.
“I think we have faculty that are talented and very competitive,” Vice President of Research, Mark Rudin said. “I feel confident that we’ll continue to be competitive in that area, just because of the talent level of our faculty.”
Professor Julie Oxford of the Biological Sciences Department is one of many researchers working to prove Vice President Rudin correct.
Professor Oxford is the director of the Boise State University chapter of the Idaho Idea Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). It is a statewide program that involves all of the colleges and universities in the state. The National Institutes of Health funds this program and the various stakeholders from around the state get together every five years to write a renewal for their grants.
The program professor Oxford oversees involves multiple research projects.
“We are looking at the causes of arthritis,” Oxford explained, “and hoping we can find out information that would contribute to a cure or a treatment or prevention. We also… look at normal development… primarily the development of the skeleton. But we also have interest in development of the eyes and development of the ears. Some of the conditions some individuals experience have a whole constellation of symptoms that include the heart, the eyes, the ears and joints. So we’re trying to understand how one very small but specific mutation in a gene can impact all of these different systems.”
Sequestration brought a bit of a kink at the end of the current five-year funding period. Oxford’s program has an annual budget of approximately $800,000. Suddenly, funds for this program were cut by about $81,000 for the period starting April 1 of this year and ending March 31, 2014.
“NIH gave us about a month notice,” Oxford said. “They told us they would cut our budget by ten percent and their question to us was how are we going to still carry out our program. And so we had to submit a new budget and justify the cuts.”
This was going to be a very difficult process. “We have many, many people hired on this grant. So I think it’s one thing if someone tells you they’re going to cut your budget by ten percent and you can reduce the amount of spending… on supplies. But it’s (another) thing when you’re talking about people’s jobs. So it was, I think, a little painful.”
For many of the people hired on this grant, the danger was a possibility of losing their career.
“We didn’t know what to do exactly,” Oxford said, “whether we should just shorten our year by 1.2 months, so kind of cut across the board, or should we look at the program and cut deeply into one area.”
The latter would mean someone would have to lose his or her job.
“This grant that has been going on for so long is so lean at this point,” Oxford added. “There just was no fat to trim.”
The grant also funds a summer undergraduate research fellows program in which undergraduate students are able to work in research labs for ten weeks. The number of students awarded this opportunity will be reduced from ten to nine.
Professor Oxford spoke on the general effect this situation has on morale.
“If these researchers that are working full-time… dedicated to whatever research question it is they’re focusing on… I believe that they can’t do their best work if they feel this looming risk of losing their jobs.” This worry can “lessen the attention they might have had to focusing on a question about cancer or a question about arthritis,” according to Oxford.
One of the worst effects might be this stress motivates people to give up on research.
“I have heard from different faculty members… that they are quite discouraged because grant applications have become so much more competitive,” Oxford said. “Even a very high quality grant application, great research ideas, might not get funded.”
Professor Oxford emphasized the amount of hard work and energy it takes to put a grant proposal together. She then explained that some professors begin to wonder if it’s really even worth it.
“They do work really hard,” she said. “It’s ok if… it pays off, but when you work so hard and you have nothing to show, it’s kind of hard.”
Professor Oxford mentioned that some faculty members have told her they are considering putting more of their energy into other areas of academia and away from research.
“One of the professors indicated that they would just spend more time teaching… Another faculty member came to me and said, ‘I think maybe I should start moving into administration.’ Less research, more administration, because research is kind of demoralizing people.”
But Professor Oxford sees another side to it as well. “On the flip-side, I think… it motivates us because we have to scramble. We have to be writing that many more grant applications,” she said.
While she feels this may detract from time that could be spent in the lab, there is an advantage to putting out more grant applications. The more grants applied for, the better the chances of making up some of the deficits caused by sequestration.
According to Oxford, the situation is “raising the awareness that we really need to get high-quality grant applications out on a regular basis, rapidly, to keep our research programs going.”
Building the ability to rapidly produce high-quality grant applications likely serves the interests of researchers even when there is no sequester.
It is this dedication to digging deep and doing what it takes to keep research alive that helped Professor Oxford reduce her program’s deficit. But she couldn’t have done it without help.
Both the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tony Roark and Vice President Rudin were involved in the process. “We were looking at a deficit of about $60,000 and I proposed that we split this and they were very willing to help out.”
The Biomolecular Research Center, who administers the grant, also has some funds that are not from federal grants. Professor Oxford said they were able to “draw off of that for a short term fix.” Even though her program wasn’t completely unscathed, Oxford acknowledges support from Boise State University. “We trimmed a little bit, but Boise State kind of stepped up to the plate and took over some of those costs. So we’re ok, I think.”
Despite the fact they are still missing around $30,000, Professor Oxford is staying hopeful and working hard to find whatever funding options that are available.
“Because this program starts in April, we’re really at just the beginning of the year. So what we can do is in the meantime apply for more grants… and if one of those grants comes through with a similar mission, then we could end that year early and start the new project just a little bit earlier… we can make it work.”
While sequestration is making research more difficult, Professor Oxford doesn’t think it will get in the way of the university achieving its research goals.
“I’m always concerned about grant funding continuing to come in, but it has been so far,” Oxford said. “I know that it is tough, but it’s been tough before. We’ve seen these levels before… and I’m optimistic that we’re just at a low point and we’ll see it oscillate back up to better, more favorable research funding.”
She called the sequestration a hiccup. “Boise State is still growing as a research university,” she said. Professor Oxford demonstrates that it is a dedication to finding solutions to tough problems that has made this possible and it is that same dedication that will carry research at Boise State through these hard times into the future. After all, finding solutions to tough problems is what researchers do.