Photo Credit: UGA News Service
UGA professor Merryl Alber (pink shirt) guides Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on a tour of the Marine Institute at Sapelo Island in 2014.
The Trump Administration’s proposed budget includes dramatic cuts to federal agencies that fund scientific research, and some of the effects of these budget cuts will be felt here in Athens. The University of Georgia’s scientific community fears an increase in competition among U.S. scientists for dwindling grants, meaning lost jobs for technicians and graduate students who work on these projects as a way of building their careers.
The UGA Office of Research estimates that the Trump budget would cost UGA research projects $24 million, using a formula that extrapolates the cuts at federal agencies and applies those losses to the UGA projects they fund. With nearly 80 percent of the University of Georgia’s research projects paid for by federal agencies, those cuts could have a major impact on the university’s prestige and the Athens economy.
Even without cuts, “competition for research funding is fierce,” says UGA Vice President for Research David Lee. “Only a few projects out of a hundred are selected for funding. If our professors are fortunate—and they are often fortunate—the project funds are awarded to the researchers.”
Research is vital to the University of Georgia. Universities communicate their prestige to prospective students by excelling at, promoting and licensing their research. Professors and scientists fiercely compete for funds to conduct scientific research. At the conclusion of these projects, research papers are published, presented and discussed within academia at conferences, and sometimes licensed to corporations, who use it to go on to develop products and services.
Congress controls the purse strings, and Trump’s budget outline is extremely unlikely to pass as-is. But it is a statement of priorities for an administration that’s already proven hostile to science, for example by pulling out of the Paris climate-change agreement and scrubbing information about climate change from government websites.
The Biggest Losers
The largest source of federal funds for UGA research is the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides more than $73 million to UGA projects. The proposed budget would cut HHS funding by almost 18 percent. Using the research office’s formula, UGA projects funded by HHS would lose more than $13 million.
The biggest loser in the proposed budget is the Environmental Protection Agency, which stands to lose 31 percent of its funding. While the effects of such a reduction on Athens’ EPA office are unknown, UGA’s loss would be minimal—about $200,000.
A major long-term research project is underway on the Georgia coast’s Sapelo Island, where Merryl Alber and 21 other scientists work on a “Long Term Ecological Research” project, one of 25 similar projects funded by the National Science Foundation. NSF established the LTER network in 1980 to study long-term change, including climate change, in specific ecological settings such as prairies, coasts and other environments. The Georgia Coastal Ecosystems project joined the LTER network in 2000.
The project at Sapelo is studying the effects that sea-level rise will have as it causes saltwater to move further upstream into wetlands and estuaries, potentially affecting plants, animals and nutrient cycling in these notoriously fragile environments. To study these effects, the research team set up 30 freshwater “plots” separated by plastic boundaries, and began mixing specific amounts of salt water brought in by truck from the ocean. They then compile detailed data on the effects they observe over time, and share the results with the scientific community and coastal managers.
Alber’s project, along with the other LTERs, may be in danger as the new budget calls for an 11 percent decrease in NSF funding—bringing it down to 2002 levels.
Grad Students Left Behind
Research professors seem anxious and agree that funding cuts could have long-term effects, especially on graduate-level students just beginning to compete for research grants. Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who studies the ways climate change is affecting animal agriculture, is concerned for graduate students seeking their first grants.
“Four years could wipe out a lot of careers,” she says, referring to Trump’s first term of office. “I feel especially bad for students just graduating now, so it’s tougher for them. For someone who is just getting started, four years is an eternity. Four years is enough to get rid of a whole generation of scientists.”
Suzanne Barbour, dean of the UGA Graduate School, is also concerned about the funding cuts. “Students are the base of the research pyramid,” Barbour says. “Grad students working as research assistants rely on research grants to pay for their training, but the projects also rely on students to do a lot of the work.
“Right now we have approximately 775 doctoral and 160 master’s students who are working on funded research grants. These projects also serve as recruiting tools. When faculty members bring in exciting research projects, that helps lure in more and better quality graduate students.”
The funding cuts “certainly have the potential to make a difference for the graduate school if the funding declines,” Barbour continues. “If there aren’t funded projects for these students to work on, then we won’t attract the same number or caliber of students.”
According to the Office of Research website, UGA ranks among the top five universities in research that is used to develop new products. Research at UGA brings in more than $150 million in annual revenue and supports nearly 1,100 jobs.
Funding is up, too, and the university is working to continue the trend. Dollars for UGA research from all sources have increased 20 percent in the past two years. Lee says this run of success can be attributed to strategic development in “hot” areas of study such as infectious diseases, vaccine development and plant genomics. Luring professors with good track records in attracting research funds also helped boost these numbers. Lee expects another increase of 10 percent in grant money for the coming year.
The Trump budget could more than cancel out those gains, though. As Alber contemplates the potential effects, she focuses on the upside of her research.
“The Georgia Coast Ecosystems LTER project provides long-term data that is critical for tracking the changes that we know are occurring in these ecosystems,” she says. “The research that we do is important for making informed decisions about the wise use and protection of coastal resources.
“It also contributes to our understanding of the natural world… and I believe there is a fundamental argument to be made for advancing this type of research regardless of its direct relevance. Scientific curiosity can bear fruit in unpredictable, unexpected ways, and it is part of what makes us human.”