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Built In Better Times, University Labs Now Lack Research Funding


American universities have seriously overbuilt their laboratory space. That is especially true for biomedical research. The National Science Foundation says there is 50 percent more lab space than a decade ago. The problem is there's been a sharp drop in funding to carry out research in those labs. NPR's Richard Harris reports from Charlottesville, Virginia.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: I'm on the campus on the University of Virginia's Medical Center, and I'm looking out at several new laboratory buildings that were built on the expectation that federal dollars would roll in and help support a whole new wave of bio-medical research. Unfortunately it hasn't worked out that way. Tom Skalak, the university's vice president for research, says when Congress doubled the funding for biomedical research about a decade ago, it seemed like the start of a new golden age.

TOM SKALAK: Biosciences are likely to have tremendously beneficial effects for society in many walks, from new drugs and medical treatments, to new building materials and better ways to grow food for everyone. It really came as a - I think from the scientific community's point of view, as the right decision by our political leaders at the right time in history.

HARRIS: UVA officials, like colleagues coast-to-coast, rubbed their hands excitedly at the prospect of all that new money. Administrators saw that funding could not only support ongoing research but could help universities build new buildings and attract new faculty. Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University, says it's all based on a evolving business model.

PAULA STEPHAN: In many ways, the research university that's evolved today is much like a shopping mall.

HARRIS: She says think of universities as mall owners and individual scientists as the shopkeepers. Scientists get research grants and then pay rent to the universities out of that money. When grant funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, construction cranes went up all over the country to build more lab space.

STEPHAN: Universities were exuberant. They thought that they could keep running this kind of scheme - where the NIH budget would keep going up, and they could keep hiring more people.

HARRIS: But that didn't happen. After the NIH budget doubled, it stagnated. In fact it's declined more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account.

STEPHAN: We greatly overbuilt the shopping malls.

HARRIS: University of Virginia, for instance, doubled the amount of lab space for biomedical research. Two new lab buildings were built to accommodate an additional 700 scientists and technicians. But UVA scientists struggled to bring in grant money. So the university actually had to shed more than 300 research jobs. Facilities in these new buildings to house small animals and to handle dangerous germs are now lightly used. Tom Skalak says it could be worse.

SKALAK: The UVA swings in overbuilding or unused space for specialized facilities really have been extremely moderate compared to the scaling that occurred in either larger institutions or some of the large, private medical centers.

HARRIS: No question this pain is felt far and wide. But the University of Virginia's biomedical labs grew at twice the national average while NIH funding for the universities is actually lower than it was a decade ago. Worse, the state of Virginia now provides just 10 percent of funding for the university. So administrators have made up some of that shortfall by raising tuition.

SKALAK: If one source of funding shrinks, it puts pressure on other sources.

HARRIS: But Skalak says students do benefit from research labs, too.

SKALAK: The notion that some elements of what's paid in tuition might support experiential learning, we think it's actually very acceptable, in fact desirable.

HARRIS: Of course the University of Virginia is hardly unique in raising tuition. Universities everywhere realize that they're not likely to see Congress increasing federal funding anytime soon. Skalak says that's shortsighted.

SKALAK: I think you'll see the pendulum swing back because any Fortune 500 executive will tell you today their biggest fear is to be disrupted - why? Because they're not bringing in the new knowledge that allows them to reinvent their businesses.

HARRIS: That new knowledge has traditionally flowed out of universities. The issue isn't total dollars. The NIH budget is still about $30 billion a year. The problem is that thanks to the budget doubling a decade ago, there are many more scientists now chasing after dollars that have been eroded by inflation. Paula Stephan says one worrisome result is that researchers are getting more and more conservative in their research, in order to increase their odds of beating out other scientists for hard-fought research dollars.

STEPHAN: That may get us great results in the short-run, but it may bankrupt the system in the long-run.

HARRIS: Bankrupt in the sense that universities should be providing ideas that are useful in years or decades to come, not just projects with a quick payback. The shopping mall model means universities can no longer afford to be patient. Scientists who lose their funding will lose their labs and often even much of their salaries.

STEPHAN: And so it's an unstable system. It really depended on funding growing and growing and growing, and we need to find some way for it to reach an equilibrium.

HARRIS: That's likely to mean some combination of fewer scientists, higher tuition rates and less innovation in the universities that are supposed to be the engines of new ideas. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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