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Hackett addresses importance of federally funded research

By Charlotte Aaron

Section: Features

September 15, 2017

The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, in a bipartisan effort, rejected President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the National Institute of Health (NIH) by approving a bill that would instead increase funding by $2 billion. This money, according to Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), would help fund research to cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s, address the opioid epidemic, and fund projects such as Combat Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, and more.

While the work of the Appropriations Subcommittee comes as a welcome surprise to many researchers and citizens alike across the country, it is a small blow to an administration that has attempted to make significant cuts in funding for research. To learn more about why exactly federal funding for research is so important, The Brandeis Hoot spoke with Brandeis’ Vice Provost for Research Edward Hackett.

“You need to take one step back to think about research,” said Hackett. “The thing with research is that we all benefit from it so no one has a specific interest in paying for it.” Hackett is no newcomer to the realm of federal funding for research. “I’ve worked on all three sides,” he stated, referencing his time working as the division director for the National Science Foundation (NSF), as an outside grant reviewer, and as a university provost and professor.

In a time when “federal funding” can be a taboo in politics, Hackett addressed exactly why research requires such government funding. “We’ve got a library full of books. You can read any of them and look at the articles online and learn things. Those are gifts that cost a lot to produce and cause a great deal of societal benefit,” said Hackett. “So, if the federal government doesn’t pay for it, who will?”

Though there exists an argument that such research would be funded by private corporations and nonprofits, Hackett explained that this argument is flawed in two ways. First, corporations’ responsibilities are to their shareholders, he stated. “As much as we’d like to think they’re friendly places—Google has bright colors and wants to do no evil—their purpose in life is to make money.”

Further, in addressing the prospect of now federally funded research being pursued by nonprofits, Hackett noted that only issues of interest to those with money would be addressed. “We have a good sense if they [neurodegenerative diseases] are hereditary, so when a rich person finds out that he comes from or she comes from a family that’s afflicted with this, they have a strong incentive to invest,” Hackett said. “So the prenatal care of poor women would probably not matter so much.”

While the private and nonprofit sectors may not address issues such as prenatal care of poor women, Hackett explained that oftentimes when the government comes upon an problem that needs to be researched and addressed, it will create competitions or grants for researchers of that specific problem. In his position with the NSF, Hackett was responsible for a $100 million budget used to fund research for the social and economic sciences. In 2017, NSF was responsible for funding “24 percent of all federally sustained research in US colleges and universities, according to the NSF website.

At Brandeis, Hackett is responsible for overseeing the $60 million a year the universities receives in direct and indirect federal funding, working to ensure the “research enterprise” continues to move forward. He tracks federal funding and the government, follows the work of other universities, and oversees the research administration. “Federal funds come with strings attached, so we have to follow the rules,” said Hackett. He explained that his office ensures research proposals are properly prepared when they are sent out from Brandeis and that the research done complies with federal procedural requirements.

In his second year at Brandeis, Hackett has already seen many faculty project proposals sent out and approved. The best and hardest part of his job, he explained, is the intellectual challenge he faces every day of trying to “take faculty ideas and make them necessary.” Helping with development of proposals, he aims to advise faculty members during the application process, although he is aware of the “risk of giving advice,” unable to be certain that his suggestions are better than what the professors propose.

Although Hackett worries at times that the United States research system is in jeopardy, he is confident that the nation will move forward and regain intellectual curiosity.

“Don’t despair. Act,” Hackett advised current Brandeis students.

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