Research in the Trump era: How presidential budget could affect university funding

Heyun Jeong/Staff

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For Julia Szinai, research funding has always been an uncertainty.

Szinai is a UC Berkeley third-year dual masters student in the Energy and Resources Group, or ERG, as well as the Goldman School of Public Policy. She’s worked in a variety of positions, including as a research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as a graduate researcher for a professor in ERG.

Szinai has had to join existing projects, moving from one to the next as they came to a close. This means that for Szinai, there hasn’t been any security in whether she will find funding for her projects the next semester.

“I’ve somehow managed to pull it together, but it hasn’t been easy,” Szinai said. “There’s no certainty until you find the next thing, which makes it a stressful process.”

Funding for graduate students doesn’t only cover the cost of their research. It can also go to a stipend for their living expenses and pay for part of their tuition.

Andrea Rex, the assistant dean for graduate student services, said in an email that financial support for graduate students is a top priority. It’s rare, she said, for a graduate student in good academic standing to leave purely for financial reasons.

But President Donald Trump’s recently announced budget proposal has left many researchers at UC Berkeley uncertain about the future of their funding. Federal funding makes up nearly half of the university’s $4.4 billion research budget. Trump’s proposed budget has called for major cuts to agencies, such as the Department of Health of Human Services, NASA and the Department of Energy, which provide the majority of UC research funding.

The only proposed increase to a department that significantly finances UC research was to the Department of Defense, which makes up 9 percent of the university’s federal research budget.

Many campus professors fear that potential cuts could harm present and future research or mean fewer available research positions for graduate students.

“I don’t need huge amount of money,” said Daniel Kammen, a professor in ERG and director of the campus’s Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory, or RAEL. “The bulk of my money goes to students, and if those programs were cut, I would have to drop students.”

The state of the budget

The president’s budget is only the first step in a long legislative process that could take more than a year.

Jesse Rothstein, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said the budget process is intended to be a “negotiation” between the White House and Congress. The president’s budget has no force of law — it’s just a proposal.

Dan Lindheim, a campus professor of public policy, said there hasn’t been a budget approved in the formal budgetary process for years. He noted that in past years, because of disagreements, Congress has passed continuing resolutions that more or less maintain the prior year’s budget.

Trump has justified the cuts by stating that the government has to learn to spend less money to make the government more accountable to the people. But Trump has also promised to spend on infrastructure, increase defense spending and cut taxes. To keep these promises and not increase the national deficit, Lindheim said, the government will have to make massive cuts to social spending.

“This budget will be a public safety and national security budget,” Trump said in a meeting with the National Governors Association in February. “This defense spending increase will be offset and paid for by finding greater savings and efficiencies across the federal government. We’re going to do more with less.”

The president’s budget proposal also comes after Trump threatened on Twitter to withhold federal funds entirely from UC Berkeley in response to the violent protest Feb. 1 that led to the cancellation of controversial conservative author Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance on campus. So far, however, nothing has come from this threat.

Lindheim said in an email that he believes Congress will most likely scale back the proposed cuts so as to look reasonable. Jose Diaz, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, said he doesn’t endorse the president’s budget proposal but trusts Congress to produce an acceptable final version.

“I have faith in our congressional leaders to get the job done,” Diaz said. “To make the necessary amendments that (are) going to be needed to make sure that we have an effective … way of spending our taxpayer money.”

Diaz said no allocation of money should be looked at as untouchable and the funding of every federal department and agency should be reviewed, discussed and debated to ensure it’s used in the most productive way possible.

But David Schaffer, director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, said even if Congress cuts the National Institutes of Health’s funding by half of what Trump proposed, it would still be detrimental to research on campus.

“Research groups are going to have to get smaller,” Schaffer said. “Less research is going to get done.”

Coping with cuts

The president’s budget proposes an 18 percent decrease in funding to the NIH, the university’s single largest federal funder of research. Last year, the NIH accounted for nearly 65 percent of federal research funding to the university.

According to Schaffer, there are no alternative sources of funding that could offset such a loss. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, another important source of funding for the center, is expected to run out of funding by the end of 2020, Schaffer said. Other private funding sources for the center, such as from the American Cancer Society, Schaffer said, are not enough.

“The amount of research funding they’re able to provide is very small,” Schaffer said. “The NIH funding is irreplaceable.”

A cut like this, Schaffer said, would mean fewer biological advancements.

At the center Schaffer directs, researchers are using stem cells to try to develop treatments for blindness and cures for degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Losses in funding, he said, would put these projects at risk.

The prospect of decreased funding also brings concerns about the inability for professors to support graduate student researchers.

For Kammen, his students are integral to his work. As such, much of his research funding goes toward supporting his graduate-student researchers.

“Everything I do is done by and with graduate students,” Kammen said. “There are no projects that I do … that don’t involve Berkeley’s amazing student population.”

Kammen said his graduate students make the research he does possible. RAEL focuses on the science of sustainable energy, such as creating low-carbon electrical grids and helping design policies that reduce emissions. Kanmen’s researchers do everything from creating computer simulations to building mini-grids in North Africa.

The bulk of Kammen’s funding comes from state programs, though he is partly funded by the National Science Foundation — a federal agency for which future funding allocations are unclear. The NSF was not mentioned in Trump’s proposed budget.

While Kammen currently has enough nonfederal funding that his projects aren’t in danger, many of his students who aren’t funded through his grants are supported directly by federal programs, such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

These outside funds, which could total more than $100,000, are at risk, Kammen said, and reductions would mean he would have to drop student researchers.

“Most of the money given to grad students, most of the time, it’s not going to specific projects,” said Ian Bolliger, a third-year graduate student who works at RAEL. “Most of it is to support you.”

Bolliger added that there isn’t any real standard for graduate students to obtain funding — it varies. It’s a difficult process, Bolliger said, and sometimes there are students who just can’t find funding from any source.

For other students, funding isn’t a big problem. Noah Kittner is a doctoral student in the Energy and Resources Group who works with Kammen. He has been able to find outside funding from both private and federal institutions, such as the U.S. Agency of International Development, the NSF and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

But, as Kittner pointed out, he’s the exception — not the rule.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate,” Kittner said. “Not all my peers have had that same fortune.”

Funding and the future

Henry Brady, dean of the campus’s Goldman School of Public Policy, made it clear that research funding for the UC system is integral to future scientific and economic progress in California.

“We have universities in the state of California and all over the world that need people to teach in them eventually, and grad students become the teachers of tomorrow,” Brady said.

Funding for graduate students — for both their tuition and their research — has far-reaching benefits, and their work at the university allows for world-changing innovation, Brady said. With monetary support from the NSF, for instance, Kammen and his team of graduate students were able to establish Kenya as a clean energy leader.

Additionally, Brady said decreased research funding would mean that fewer international students would come to study in the United States and that fewer still would stay. For the past three decades, funding for public education has decreased in the United States, risking the country’s current leadership position in global higher education. International freshman applicants decreased for the first time in more than a decade in the 2016-17 admissions cycle.

The resulting lack of student-body diversity across the UC system, Kammen said, would be a detriment to his research, as it is the diversity of his students that has strengthened his lab and his work.

Brady added that cuts to funding would also slow economic progress in the country. An analysis by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute in 2014 found that of the 3,744 business founders from UC Berkeley it identified, nearly 70 percent of them were graduate students. The report also found that, together, all the founders in the study generated about $317 billion in annual revenue and employed more than 540,000 individuals in a variety of fields, ranging from legal services to manufacturing.

“Sustained federal investment in science at universities and national labs has been proven over and over again to be a sure-fire way to create new jobs, new industries, and fuel the kind of economic growth that benefits all Americans,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Paul Alivisatos in an email. “The radical disruption of our science enterprise … as proposed in this budget would be a losing strategy for the future of our country.”

UC President Janet Napolitano said in an email that the university will continue to make its case to Congress about the necessity of federal investments in research, which she called crucial to economic and social progress.

“Now is the time for the federal government to bolster investments,” Napolitano said in the email. “The National Institutes of Health, energy research and other such efforts … lead to innovations that power our nation’s competitiveness.”

Michael Lee covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.