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I have been called the Cassandra of federal government funding. Cassandra was cursed by Apollo when she refused his attempted seduction, and the curse was that she could predict the future but would never be believed. Those of you who have read my pieces in this newsletter know that I have been predicting that funding for research, especially basic research, would decline. My faculty colleagues did not believe me, and at first they appeared to be correct: Research funding actually grew because of the stimulus funding that came with the Great Recession of 2008. But the end of the stimulus combined with the budget cuts of last spring, known as the sequester, has brought the decline that I predicted.
I know of faculty members at the peak of their research productivity – whose research proposals have been given the highest scores – who have lost 30 percent or more of their government funding. I know of young faculty members who have done spectacular research with funding that is targeted for junior people, whose work has earned them tenure, but who then cannot get the funds to continue it.
One department admitted half as many students as usual this year, because the faculty expects to be able to support far fewer students.
There are several consequences of reduced government funding. The first is a reduction in the size of our graduate programs. One department admitted half as many students as usual this year, because the faculty expects to be able to support far fewer students. The second consequence is that we lose mid-career superstar faculty members to institutions with deeper pockets. We can usually compete on salaries, but these institutions can offer very large levels of research support from well-funded faculty chairs. Unlike professional sports, scientists are not driven to go where the salaries are highest, but where they can do the best research, and that means going where there is the most research funding.
Other nations’ governments are now treating science much better than ours. The United States used to have a policy of being the leader in every area of science, and this has given us great benefits in the technologies that have come out of the research and the people we have attracted from all over the world. We are now giving up that lead in one field after another.
School of Science faculty and students are still doing wonderful research. In this issue, you can read about Professor of Chemistry Bob Griffin who has spent years seeking ways to unveil the structure of hard-to-imagine molecules and why it’s important we do so. Chelsea Walton, a postdoc in our Department of Mathematics, shares her journey to MIT and the research that excites her. You can also read about Gene Stark, who wanted to support research on the brain and realized one great way to do it. Private philanthropy cannot replace the lost federal government funding; it is simply too big. But fellowships for our graduate students and chairs for our faculty can help us compete for the funding that remains.