On Dec. 6, 2013, Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson wrote an opinion-editorial for the Detroit Free Press in collaboration with the presidents of University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
On the brink of Congress’ imminent new batch of sequestration cuts that would slash federal research funding to universities throughout the country, the presidents of Michigan’s three major research universities, which are collectively known as the University Research Corridor, decided to publicize their apprehensions about the forthcoming legislation.
“We are an entity that’s recognized because of our common bond with respect to research,” Wilson said of the URC. “And as a result, when issues come about that concern research, we typically band together. And that’s how this happened (writing the article). We were all concerned about the sequestration and the possible effect of it, if Congress did not get together and do something rational.”
On Dec. 18, 2013, Congress passed a two-year budget deal that curtailed the proposed cuts, including those relevant to research funding at universities. While it is doubtful that a federal bill was amended by the persuasion of three university presidents moonlighting as journalists, Wilson said their message was part of a larger voice to which Congress heeded.
“I think that the Free Press article was one of many efforts throughout the country,” Wilson said. “A number of university leaders have spoke up about this issue, and a number of op-eds were written. And we were one of many voices. But I think the voices were very consistent, and it raised a certain level of alarm, if something wasn’t done.”
Wilson said the potential repercussions of decreased funding would have been more significant than many realized.
“That would have been absolutely devastating,” Wilson said. “And I’m not sure that the impact of continued sequestration was well understood by even other universities that weren’t as heavily involved with research, but certainly the lay public. And we thought that by talking about some of the impacts of the sequestration, that we could hopefully get people to mobilize and drum up support for making sure that (further) sequestration didn’t happen.”
While the new budget deal softens the blow of overall cuts that were implemented in March 2013, Wilson said his concerns regarding federal research funding have not been fully assuaged.
“The budget deal’s not perfect, but it’s a compromise,” Wilson said. “And so understanding that, I feel – I wouldn’t say satisfied – I feel temporarily relieved that the cuts aren’t as bad as they could have been. I think it gives us some breathing room to be able to kind of recoup and get ourselves back together in a growth mode, as opposed to an always cutting-cutting-cutting mode.”
Wilson said WSU graduate students in the biomedical field can especially benefit from the mitigation of cuts in the new budget deal, thanks to its impact on National Institutes of Health, one of the largest biomedical research funding organizations in the world and the top provider of federal funding to researchers at WSU.
“The fact that we’re not cutting and that we’re able to have a little bit of growth in the NIH budget means that the budget that we have for graduate research training is likely to at least stay stable, if not increase a little bit,” Wilson said. “And that means that graduate students in the biomedical sciences would have a better opportunity to be trained and funded, rather than in an environment of declining resources.”
Wilson said all WSU students can potentially benefit from the added research opportunities – undergraduates included.
“It gives students more of an opportunity during their undergraduate education to participate in research programs, become more competitive for very difficult to receive (working) positions in medicine and the other life sciences – nursing, pharmacy – as well as graduate (school) positions,” Wilson said.
While the new budget deal is expected to foster these expanded opportunities, Wilson said he also anticipates the process will take some time.
“There’s always a bit of a lag,” Wilson said. “Part of what’s been happening is that with the sequester, that faculty hold on to their research dollars more. They don’t spend it, because they don’t know if they’re going to get more. And so when they don’t spend it, then it decreases our indirect costs. And it’s a trickle-down effect because our indirect costs are used, for example, to help finance the new MBRB building – the Multidisciplinary Biomedical Research Building. And so it takes longer, or it’s harder to get it financed.”
Wilson said researchers at WSU had also been applying for less federal grants, due to the dwindling quantity and increasingly competitive thresholds required to secure funding that followed. The result was less research being conducted, which Wilson said plays into bigger issues.
“We still have to do a lot more to make sure that research is funded at the level that it should be funded, which quite frankly is in the country’s best interest, because of the economic boosts that research provides and the quality of life that it provides from the results of research being applied to everyday life circumstances, that improve quality of life and in many cases prolongs life or saves lives,” Wilson said. “And so when you look at the economic benefits and the quality of life benefits of research, we’re still under-investing.”