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Academics talk research reform

If American research universities aren’t already in crisis mode, they’re getting close, according to some government, business, and academic leaders who gathered in Baltimore on Thursday to address a host of funding and policy issues they say are undercutting what should be a vibrant scientific climate.

With that potential scenario as the backdrop, more than 200 people filed into the Baltimore World Trade Center to review a report by the National Research Council (one of four institutions collectively known as the National Academies) that presents a stark account of the challenges confronting universities in Maryland and across the country.

Though the nation’s universities still enjoy worldwide prestige, according to the report, their position at the top has been eroded by unstable revenue streams (due to sequestration and increased competition for grants), lackluster partnerships among stakeholders, mounting competition from emerging countries, and other factors.

“This really is a tsunami in terms of the number of different financial pressures that are confronting us right now and really calling into question the strength of our institutions and the capacity to sustain this amazing research system,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University.

The report — “Research Universities and the Future of America” — recommends 10 strategies to achieve three broad goals: revitalizing partnerships among stakeholders; strengthening the way research is conducted; and building future talent by emphasizing the value of research-related fields.

The day-long symposium had four panels, each tackling a specific issue. The lines often blurred between topics, however, and the goal of strengthening partnerships emerged again and again as speakers echoed the idea that any effective strategy requires cooperation among universities, state and federal governments, philanthropic organizations, and the business community.

The first panel examined the needs of federal researchers and how collaborations with university counterparts might evolve during the next decade; the second addressed specific actions to build partnerships among universities, government agencies and the private sector.

Given the federal government’s budgetary climate, one of the major challenges for the scientific community is convincing policymakers to maintain research funding, Daniels said.

“Although we seem to muster all the right people, we go to all the congressional offices, we make all the same arguments, we’re just not getting traction in the way we have in the past,” he said. “Something has changed quite fundamentally.”

Nationally, the National Institutes of Health’s budget (excluding a two-year bump from the stimulus package) has not kept pace with inflation. In 2003, the budget was $27 billion; this year, with sequestration, the budget is $29.15 billion.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., delivered opening remarks in which she discussed her role in asking the National Academies to compile the report. Mikulski vowed to advocate for researchers.

She said nine of the report’s recommendations depend on the first, which calls on lawmakers to enact “stable and effective” policies and funding for university research.

“Years ago it was the policy that drove the money,” she said of a time in Congress she voted with her colleagues to double funding for NIH. “Now, it’s the money that drives the policy.”

Rachel King, the founder and CEO of GlycoMimetics Inc., a Gaithersburg-based biopharmaceutical company, said government should enact policies that encourage long-term, risky investment in the private sector, particularly in life sciences companies. Those firms typically take much longer to deliver a return-on-investment than firms in other industries, such as software.

University of Maryland School of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece, who sat in the audience, asked why an “enormous” gap seems to exist between academia and the private sector, and how it could be closed. Drew Pardoll, director of Hopkins’ Cancer Immunology and Hematopoiesis program, said it’s a matter of changing the culture to one where collaboration is “second nature.” Others suggested rewarding faculty members for getting involved in the community.

The third group of panelists discussed the steps to making Maryland the “STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] capital,” such as building cybersecurity capabilities and investing in engineering schools. The last panel focused on reducing the regulatory burden on university staff and faculty of applying for research grants.

Increased competition for research grants from the NIH is at the root of, or contributes to, many of the challenges discussed. Budget challenges mean a drastically smaller percentage of grant applications are being funded.

The sheer number of available dollars isn’t the whole story, said several people, including Peter Agre, a JHU professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Agre, who called the federal funding structure “peculiar,” said grant applications submitted by his malaria research team went “zero for five,” at the NIH.

“All our proposals were shot down,” he said.

Several people suggested the agency could re-evaluate its funding structure to eliminate unintended incentives — such as policies that encourage researchers to submit many applications each year, which flood the system. For instance, Pardoll suggested universities should reward professors for completing team-based research, not just independent work.

Other tweaks could be made to produce desired outcomes, they said, such as changing certain rules to make it easier for younger applicants to receive funding, which would help ensure a robust pipeline of up-and-coming scientists.

“It’s not that we don’t have a lot of money to spend in this country — we do,” said panelist Frank Weichold, who oversees research initiatives for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We just need to spend it more wisely.”