University officials are worried about government funding for scientific research

From left, people form the National Science Foundation, LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, participate in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Feb. 11, 2016. CREDIT: AP/Andrew Harnik

A dozen vice presidents for research at public universities known for their research missions will visit lawmakers this week to ask for more funding, but some university officials are worried that politics will play a greater role in decisions about which research to fund, Politico Pro reported.

Every February, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ Council on Research Executive Committee meets for this purpose, but this year is different. Republican lawmakers have signaled they would like more oversight over how money is spent at the National Science Foundation, and some officials are worried that Trump administration policies will affect research more than previous administrations.

“It’s no secret that faculty are a little antsy,” Kalliat Valsaraj, vice president for research and economic development at Louisiana State University, told Politico Pro.

The Trump administration has already made many decisions that put its judgment about what is politically and financially appropriate into question. Trump has kept ties to his business, involves family in official meetings with foreign leaders, has tapped people for cabinet positions with little to no relevant experience, and has an inner circle of advisers who do not appear to know or care what their ethical obligations are. For that reason, it’s difficult to predict what approach Trump would take to funding research at public universities — whether that means advocating for less funding or attempting to use research to benefit his business interests or those of his friends.

Trump is also known for retaliating against those who speak out against his policies, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities already spoke out against the Muslim ban. APLU said it was “deeply concerned,” about the policy and released a statement released on January 28 which read:

Our nation’s universities are enriched and strengthened by the talent, insight, and culture that international students, faculty, researchers, and staff bring. With appropriate and effective vetting, international students from all countries and of all religions have long been a core part of our campus communities and that should continue uninterrupted. We are also concerned that this decision adds great uncertainty to international students, researchers, and others who might consider coming to our campuses.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Association of American Universities also spoke out against the ban.

University research officials are also worried about the politicization of the National Science Foundation after reading statements like those of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, who wrote on Wednesday that the NSF has funded “frivolous” and “wasteful” projects. Smith said that NSF needs oversight and “must focus research funding on areas most likely to strengthen the economy, national security and other national priorities” and questioned whether some of NSF’s projects are “in the national interest.”

David Conover, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Oregon, told Politico Pro that Smith’s statement begs the question, “How do we decide what’s in the national interest? And who should make those decisions? … If it’s politics that are making those decisions — for instance, certain kinds of science that might not align with the politics of a particular administration — that could a very dangerous direction.”

Researchers like Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, argue that strong investment in research allows for more partnerships with communities. Edwards and other Virginia Tech researchers’ investigation of water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and the press attention it attracted, pushed the government to act more quickly. Although state officials informed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before Virginia Tech researchers examined the water, it did not act in a timely fashion. This kind of work — partnering with the public to address a health crisis — is not facilitated by more government control over what research is funded, but less, Edwards said. As government funding for scientific research falls, researchers feel pressured to cater their proposals to what they think will secure funding.

The Trump administration promised to release a budget in March. Congressional cuts to scientific research between 2010 and 2013 represented the largest decrease in three-year spending in 40 years, and spending on research and development has been falling since the 1970s. Unsolicited research used to be far more common, Edwards told ThinkProgress in an interview last year, but now that researchers tie their proposals so closely to what the government is looking for, there are fewer opportunities for innovation and protecting public health.