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News Clips 09/06/2013
UF withstands impact of federal research cutbacks
Source: Ocala Star Banner, 09/06/13
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By Jeff Schweers
A 30 percent boost in research grants from private industry nearly made up for a drop in federal funding last year, leaving the University of Florida's research community relatively unscathed.
UF received $640 million in research grants for the 12-month cycle ending June 30, according to the Office of Research, down about $4 million from the previous year, or about six-tenths of a percent less.
A closer look, however, shows that the biggest loss among federal funding sources came from UF's largest sponsor, the National Institutes of Health. Funding to UF from the NIH dropped 7.1 percent -- from $160 million to $149 million.
All federal funding accounted for 65 percent of UF's total.
The drop in federal funding was mainly because of sequestration -- $917 billion in federal spending cuts nationwide over 10 years, triggered by provisions in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to avoid automatic tax increases.
The spending cuts for this year amount to $85 billion nationally since March 1 and have forced universities to lay off scientists and medical researchers.
UF has, for the most part, been spared the impact of sequestration because of the talent and stature of its faculty, said David Norton, UF's vice president for research.
“They have to go out and get competitive awards, even in a difficult fiscal period,” Norton said. “That University of Florida faculty were able to be quite competitive, and hold our own, and keep our numbers up comparable to the previous year -- we feel quite good about that.”
Private industry funding stepped up to the plate, contributing $70.8 million to UF research coffers -- $16 million, or 30 percent, more than during the 2012 budget cycle.
“A lot of our research is relevant to industry and commercialization, which strengthens our portfolio,” Norton said.
The difference between publicly and privately sponsored research is that industry won't fund research it doesn't see as relevant to its business, Norton said. “That is just flat-out true,” he said.
Between the public and privately sponsored research, “we're doing research that not only creates new knowledge for mankind that universities thrive on, but we have a lot of research that reflects to today's needs,” Norton said.
UF Health received nearly 57 percent of UF's research money -- $363 million. Major UF Health grants include:
$12.1 million to Dr. Marco Pahor at the Institute on Aging;
$7.5 million to Elizabeth Shenkman in the Institute for Child Health Policy;
$3.9 million to Dr. David Nelson in the Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.
The Institute on Aging's grant is the latest installment of a $74 million, six-year “Life Study” project begun in 2009. It also represents 57 percent of all funding the institute received in 2013.
The life study is the largest of its kind on older people, with 1,635 participants, Pahor said. The study examines physical and cognitive changes as people get older and ways to slow the aging process with exercise and medication. Some of the research looks at the impact of inflammation on aging, and the therapeutic effects of testosterone, myostatin and resveratrol.
“With a rapidly aging population in America, the value is huge,” Pahor said.
Most programs are reactive, he explained, in that they treat people who are already disabled and a major burden on the health care system.
“Our focus is on prevention,” he said, describing it as a long-term solution to the country's health care problems. “It is more cost-effective, and intervention prolongs an active life expectancy.”
The remaining 43 percent of UF's research money was split between the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the colleges of Engineering, Liberal Arts, and other colleges.
One of the largest grants awarded outside of UF Health went to Mary Brownell in the College of Education -- $5 million to improve ways to teach children with disabilities.
Lily Elefteriadou, director of the Regional University Transportation Center at UF, won a $3.4 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant for the center's ongoing research into traffic patterns, congestion, road systems and other transportation-related problems.
“The projects we are doing have to do with anything related to safety, livability and economic competitiveness,” Elefteriadou said.
The researchers look at crash rates and the specific design of roadways, and use that data to develop models that in turn are used to improve roads, intersections, turn lanes and make other improvements that increase safety. One project looks at ramp meters to regulate the flow of cars onto highways to relieve congestion.
They also look at ways to make cities more livable by creating opportunities for alternative travel such as walking and bicycling, she said. A project at Georgia Tech is looking at ways to make Atlanta's sidewalks more usable by fixing them and filling in gaps to make them more connected.
A study being conducted here at UF examines the interaction between pedestrians and motorists at mid-block crossings.
“We are collecting data to see when pedestrians walk and when they yield,” she said. They also are examining driver behavior, she said.
By early next year, when they hope to analyze the data they're collecting, they'll be able to determine the violation rate and analyze which types of design are safer or more likely to result in a crash, she said.
The Regional University Transportation Center, Institute on Aging and other research institutes at UF are multi-year projects that rely on continued funding from Congress. That leaves a bit of uncertainty as UF looks ahead, Norton said.
“We are still facing tight budgets from the federal government,” Norton said. “We are concerned about that, as is every other university.”
Norton noted a recent CNN Money report that universities across the country have had to lay off or fire scientists and medical researchers. A survey of more than 3,700 scientists by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology reported that more than half the respondents said they have either laid off researchers or will lay off researchers because of funding cuts and 55 percent knew a colleague who had been laid off.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told The New York Times in an interview that this year is the “darkest ever” for the agency in a decade when adjusted for inflation. It is $4 billion lower than the peak year of 2003 and the lowest level since 2001, according to a news release from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
On the upside for UF, Norton said, the state economy is improving, and the
Legislature just invested $15 million a year for the next five years in UF so it can continue to compete with other top universities for funding. President Bernie Machen has dedicated that money and promised to match it with private money to recruit new competitive faculty who will come with their own research projects.
“That will continue to help us to move forward,” Norton said.