Research Engine

What will happen in RI if the federal research budget is cut?

Sen. Jack Reed, on a tour of Brown's engineering labs, talks about the America's world leadership in scientific research would be threatened

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/10/17
The proposed cuts in scientific research by the Trump administration led to a news conference by Sen. Jack Reed at Brown University, warning of the severe economic repercussions and damage to the research engine in Rhode Island.
Why is there so much disdain for scientific research by the Trump administration? What will be the impact on the emerging innovation economy in Rhode Island, from startups to commercial stage firms, if the cuts are enacted? How will the proposed cuts change the economic equation for the proposed Wexford life sciences center planned on the former Route 195 land? Is there a need to create an accessible, transparent database to track federal research dollars flowing into Rhode Island as an economic and communications tool? How big will the turnout be here in Rhode Island for the April 22 March for Science on Earth Day?
The research enterprise is central to the future 21st century innovation economy. Yet there always seems to be a disconnect when politicians talk about innovation as the gateway to jobs and prosperity in the short-term. Innovation is a long-term process, built in many cases upon failure before getting to success. Research – basic, applied, translational and collaborative – is the fuel of the innovation economy.
The success of Massachusetts as an economic force in the global innovation economy can be measured in part by the smart way the state has invested its resources.
The state created the annual mapping of the innovation economy through an index, which first began being published in 1997; Rhode Island has yet to create such an index.
Massachusetts created its own economic development “Innovation Institute” in 2004, funded by the legislature, with the bulk of some $35 million in state resources being invested in matching grants to assist the state in securing competitive federal research grants; Rhode Island still lacks that kind of structure. Rhode Island’s new Office of Innovation, funded through private resources, lacked any legislative buy-in, and its director recently departed after about a year on the job.
Massachusetts also launched its Life Sciences Initiative in 2007, developed as part of a collaborative dialogue between state legislative leaders, university presidents, and biotech firms. What was most important was the conversation that preceded the investment, bringing together all the players. Here in Rhode Island, despite the incredible research talent, that venue for conversation seems to be missing. MedMates 4.0 is attempting to create some momentum with its Life Sciences Expo scheduled for April 26.

PROVIDENCE – Deep in the labyrinth of the Prince Engineering Lab complex at Brown University, ConvergenceRI found himself wandering through the halls for 25 minutes, feeling much like a rat in a maze of corridors and classrooms, desperately seeking Sen. Jack Reed, who was holding a news conference.

Reed, accompanied by Brown Provost Richard Locke, was scheduled to issue a warning that the proposed budget cuts to science by the Trump administration would threaten the innovation pipeline and harm both Rhode Island’s and America’s competitive edge, undermining U.S. excellence in science, medicine and technology.

None of the dozen or so students or the faculty encountered, however, could direct ConvergenceRI to the correct room, which did not seem to appear on any of the building maps on the wall. Finally, a janitor, parking his garbage can on wheels in the hallway, led the way.

Up the down staircase
Traveling down the elevator to the basement and then along the corridor, the janitor and ConvergenceRI were met by a Brown communications associate; she then accompanied ConvergenceRI up a staircase to an engineering lab where the Reed news conference was underway, at which prototypes of a wave turbine to produce electricity in concert with the tides were being showcased.

In a semi-circle behind the small gaggle of news media asking questions of Reed and Locke stood a Greek chorus line of two-dozen bright-eyed Brown students, in a choreographed presence, to be seen and not necessarily heard.

Underneath the made-for-the-news-media conversation was a constant hum, the noise associated with a fabrication lab from HVAC and perhaps compressors, the serenade of being inside a maker zone.

The ‘skinny’ on the skinny budget
In his remarks, Reed talked about the impact of what he called “the Trump skinny budget” on Rhode Island: the state’s universities and hospitals would lose tens of millions of dollars in research funding: in 2016, Rhode Island universities had received more than $150 million in nationally competitive funding from the National Institutes of Health and more than $40 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.

In terms of Brown, the proposed cuts in funding would translate not only into some serious belt-tightening but a loss in the ability to attract and retain graduate students, according to Locke.

[Under Brown’s strategic plan, the university has undertaken a push to become a major center of academic research.]

“Brown brings in a couple hundred million dollars a year in research grants,” Locke said.

The short-term effects of the proposed cuts, Locke continued, because the money is being spent to support students, and because that money is being spent locally, will be economically damaging.

“In the long term, [the budget cuts] undermine our ability to be at the forefront of scientific and applied discoveries for the economy and for population health.”

ConvergenceRI asked: Have you quantified exactly what the numbers are in terms of potential losses in research funds to Brown?

“We can only kind of speculate in terms of which kinds of grants might be reduced,” Locke answered. “But we have already begun planning on some contingency funding.”

For some of the research, he continued, “[Some] 18 percent of our budget comes from externally funded grants from the federal government.”

Global competition
Locke framed the potential loss of research money as a result of the budget cuts in a global context: the competitive world for scientific research talent and graduate students.

“If this money dries up, I don’t know how we can keep getting graduate students,” Locke said. “If we cede [our leadership in research] to another [country], we’ll never get it back. This is the future, it’s about innovation, and ultimately, about jobs.”

ConvergenceRI asked Locke and Reed to talk about the importance of research as the rocket fuel for the innovation economy – both in funding for basic research, applied research and translational research.

“What you are seeing today, whether it is what you saw here, or in the new materials [lab] downstairs, these new devices will be translated into new products, and these products will create jobs and growth in this economy,” Locke said.

“In the health sphere, we’re seeing incredible work done on certain diseases, whether it is around obesity, autism or ALS at this university,” Locke continued, adding that this was true at URI as well. “You’re seeing discoveries in the labs being very quickly translated into cures, and sometimes into patentable businesses and technologies that create growth.”

Reed, in turn, talked about the work being done by Brown in brain research, and the way that the research could be applied to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“Brown has a very, very strong [neurosciences] department doing brain research,” he said. “We’re beginning to recognize that going forward, one of the most expensive diseases we will face is Alzheimer’s.”

This is something that we know is coming, Reed continued. “And the best way to prepare for it is to invest now in the research and the treatments and the drugs that are going to help people receive better care [as well as] to lower the costs to maintain that care.”

When America was great
Locke chimed in, talking about the short-sighted nature of the proposed Trump cuts in scientific research.

“When we were in the 1950s, when America was great – I’ve heard that phrase before – we invested significantly in scientific research,” Locke said. “It was a race with other countries, the Soviet Union most significantly, but there was a huge commitment to science and research.”

Locke also recalled that in the 1990s, there was a bipartisan agreement in Congress that doubled the NIH budget. “It doubled the budget and we took off,” he said. “Without that doubling [of the budget], we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

The current “skinny” Trump budget calls for a reduction in NIH funding by about 20 percent. There are also potential cuts in the current budget that are being considered, according to Trump budget officials.

Those cuts would come on top of existing budget reductions to NIH that came as a result of sequestration when the Republican Congress sought to shut down the government, said to be about 20 percent. Many local Rhode Island companies have spoken with ConvergenceRI about the difficulties in securing SBIR research awards, even if the proposals were scored highly, because of the cutbacks in NIH funds.

Reed talked about how the proposed cuts to NIH would have a ripple effect on research. “The cuts in the NIH budget will have a significant impact. They are funded on an annual basis, but most of their grants are given for several years. If NIH gets cut, they will barely be able to keep the current research going. So, if you have a new idea, a new project, one that has the potential to be a world-changing effort, they’re going to say: ‘Great; we have no money.’”

Locke agreed. “It’s not just the research studies; it’s about the maturing and developing of a whole generation of researchers. We’re still the best in the world at research. If we take four, five years off from that, we won’t be able to make it up, and other countries will. They are investing very heavily in Ph.D.’s in laboratories that are so critical to our nation.”

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