PHILADELPHIA — In the waning days of 2012, two words have dominated the post-election discourse: “fiscal cliff.” The cliff is a combination of impending budgetary measures that will take effect in January if a legislative compromise is not reached.
One area of the budget that would see serious cuts is funding for the national science agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Combined with cuts to other agencies and departments, the amount of research and development funding lost could total $58 billion over five years.
Steven Fluharty, the University of Pennsylvania’s senior vice provost for research, was on Capitol Hill last month, arguing that such cuts would be a blow against a major engine for the U.S. economy. Alan Leshner, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, U.S. Reps. Rush Holt of New Jersey and Judy Biggert of Illinois and other research advocates joined him in a briefing organized by AAAS to make the case for stability in science funding.
A video of Fluharty's full remarks is available here.
Fluharty ended his testimony with a call for Congress to break its electioneering gridlock and make budgetary decisions “based on prioritization and evidence-based analysis of what is the real return of investment,” rather than defaulting to the blind cuts inherent in sequestration.
“Sequestration is a blunt instrument; it is not intended to dissect out those investments that have paid out in huge dividends and those who have not,” he said. “I would argue that investment in science and technology, through the federal funding agencies, has had enormous payout and the future is as promising as the past has been”
Representing an institution that is consistently one of the top recipients of federal research funding, Fluharty knows what is at stake. With roughly $900 million in federal research grants in the past fiscal year alone and 82% of that total coming from the national funding agencies, the impending sequestration cuts would have an immediate, sizable impact on Penn’s research agenda, as well as the jobs of its science faculty, students and staff.
Fluharty has long worked with advocacy groups, such as the Association of American Universities, United for Medical Research and the Science Coalition, on explaining how research-intensive universities contribute to economic and social progress. These contributions go above and beyond traditional conceptions of “tech transfer.” While some biomedical or technological research can go directly from bench to bedside, even the most basic, fundamental and theoretical research is part of a life cycle that ultimately benefits the public.
Fluharty sees the role of research universities like Penn as being incubators for the new ideas that eventually become economic drivers. Long-term investments and partnerships, with both government and industry, are crucial for seeing those ideas through to fruition, even if typical return-on-investment calculations don’t apply.
“Return on investment can be measured in a variety of ways. The business side of any organization wants to focus on revenue generation. While universities can't ignore revenues, they aren't the right focus,” Fluharty said. “The right focus is on social responsibility, on maximizing the likelihood that our discoveries and innovation make it to the marketplace for the public good.
“There will be revenue returns, yes, but universities take those returns and reinvest them in the research enterprise. It's about how we continue to promote the lifecycle of discovery, innovation and commercialization.”