The value of grant-funded scientific research
By Professor John Weinstein
Interim Dean, The Citadel School of Science and Mathematics
Talk of deep cuts in federal funding for basic and applied research this past spring had many in the scientific community alarmed. The federal government has been the foremost sponsor of scientific research in this country since the end of World War II, but federal funding has been steadily declining over the past 25 years. In the 1950s and 60s, federal funding provided about 50 percent of the total funding for research and development. Even as late as 1990, federal funding provided 48 percent. Today, the federal government provides only 23 percent of those funds, and further cuts have the potential to undermine scientific innovation and negatively impact local businesses and the economy.
Without public funds, most basic research would probably not happen. The United States is known for its strategic balance of public and private investment in research. Public investment, mainly in the form of federal grants, has funded basic research. This type of research aims to improve our fundamental understanding of scientific theories and processes. By contrast, applied research seeks to solve specific, practical problems in medicine, technology, or education, and is funded largely through private investment and business. Corporations have realized that investment in basic research yields little or no immediate practical applications or return on investment, and therefore there is little incentive for them to fund this type of research. However, basic research is critical in providing the knowledge that advances applied research—for example, basic research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contributes to our understanding of cellular processes that then allows pharmaceutical companies to develop cancer treatments.
The long-term benefits of scientific research may not be immediately obvious as the scientific journey that leads to tangible outcomes can take years to come to fruition. The scientific process is complex and can be slow. Depending on the discipline, the research process can also be expensive. Scientific research is marked by the formulation of ideas, designing experiments to test those ideas, and then re-testing those ideas to confirm the findings. The tangible outcomes of this process, which can include innovation, patents, and peer-reviewed publications, often come long after the research funding for a project has ended. But perhaps even less obvious are the short-term benefits associated with grant-funded research. What are those short term benefits, and how do they impact Charleston-area businesses?
First, let’s consider the economic benefits of increasing the intellectual capacity of a community. According to Dr. Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State, in the journal Science, the short-term benefits include the creation of local jobs and increased spending. For jobs, one in three workers on a grant-funded research project is a graduate or undergraduate student, one in three is research staff, and about one in 10 is a post-doctoral fellow. Of the purchases for goods and services associated with grant funding, 16 percent goes to businesses within the university’s home county and another 16 percent is spent in the home state.
One of the major federal agencies supporting research in the biosciences is NIH. MUSC is the largest recipient of NIH funding in the state. In 2016, MUSC received a total of 303 grant awards from NIH, amounting to more than id="mce_marker"11 million in funding, most of which went directly to research projects and the training of students. Using those percentages cited above, NIH funding to MUSC in 2016 would have resulted in id="mce_marker"7.8 million in expenditures to businesses in Charleston County, with an equal amount being spent on businesses elsewhere in the state. Also noteworthy is the fact that NIH directly awarded 14 South Carolina businesses grant funds totaling id="mce_marker"4 million for research and development of technologies with commercial applications.
Second, research addresses community-based issues to help improve quality of life and solve practical problems. For example, the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, a state agency, uses federal dollars from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, leveraged with private and state dollars, to fund research projects addressing critical issues affecting South Carolina’s coastal environment and economy. One such funded research project involving engineering faculty at The Citadel is addressing coastal resiliency by developing localized flood models to plan infrastructure improvements in the Charleston region. Another funded project examined the status of horseshoe crab populations to support a local multimillion dollar industry involved in collecting horseshoe crab blood, which, believe it or not, is used to detect bacterial contamination of medical equipment in the healthcare industry. Such funding from S.C. Sea Grant has also resulted in patents for innovative products that impact local businesses, including the development of a protein analog that is being tested as a safe and effective alternative to copper-based products preventing marine invertebrates from fouling the hull of boats.
Third, grant-funded research provides opportunities for students to participate in research. At The Citadel, most grant-funded scientific research engages undergraduate and graduate students. Research experiences enhance student learning through the development of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, scientific literacy, and intellectual independence. They also provide students with valuable practical experience and career training, leading to an informed and well-trained workforce. Grant-funded research programs promote an innovation-orientated culture within a college and an opportunity to work closely with faculty, helping to recruit the best students. In 2016, grant-related funding and fellowships from S.C. Sea Grant supported 15 undergraduates, 34 master’s-level students, and 11 Ph.D. students in this state.
And finally, research has a far-reaching impact on our economy. Lying at the heart of the U.S. economic strategy is innovation. Innovation, fueled by basic and applied scientific research, is a key source of new commercial products and change-making ideas that can positively impact businesses. Innovation is critical for economic growth, vitality, and the competitiveness of our nation. It is the basis for the creation of new technologies, industries, and jobs. Innovation also underpins a wide range of public policies, including healthcare, energy efficiency, and environmental sustainability. Local businesses and our economy have benefited from scientific research. Given the far-reaching impact of grant-funded research, further reductions in research funding from the federal government could put a generation of discovery and innovation at risk.
John Eric Weinstein, Ph.D, is the interim dean for The Citadel School of Science and Mathematics. He is a professor of physiology whose current research interests are in the area of aquatic toxicology.