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Federal funding for the sciences supports ground-breaking research

By Polina Potochevska

Section: Featured, Features

September 15, 2017

Have you ever wondered how much money goes into funding the scientific research that goes on at Brandeis? With seven departments and five interdepartmental programs in the sciences and a large focus on research, it’s no secret that federal funding plays a huge role in ensuring that research can continue.

For the past 10 years, the science department has brought in approximately $35-38 million a year, according to Professor John F.C. Wardle—a professor of astrophysics and the head of the division of science within the College of Arts and Sciences.

That figure went even higher in 2010 and 2011, said Wardle, when due to the “financial meltdown,” there were “recovery funds made available and it went as high as 45 million.”

There are two pieces of federal funding which are important to distinguish: direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are the majority of the total, ranging from around $25-30 million a year, and they include individual grants to PI’s (Principal Investigators), training grants and other programs. The indirect costs, also known as overhead costs, are around $11 million a year, and they help to pay for infrastructure and electricity.

The total amount of grant money the university receives is around $60 million dollars, according to a division of science database, so a majority of that amount, approximately 40 million, goes towards the science departments.

In the physics department, the main source of funding is from MRSEC, the Material Research Science and Engineering Center, which is an NSF (National Science Foundation) program. Wardle said there are around 20 other MRSEC programs around the country funded by the NSF for periods of five years at a time. Brandeis is one of the smallest universities to be funded by MRSEC, and the only one without an engineering department.

Wardle mentioned the Brandeis MRSEC is a project that blends biology and biophysics. According to the Brandeis MRSEC website, the program “seeks to create new materials that are constructed from only a few simplified components, yet capture the remarkable functionalities found in living organisms.” This MRSEC program is funded with around $4 million a year.

Wardle said this funding supports several labs, but it is also interdisciplinary so professors in other departments can participate and interact with the research. “It’s wonderful, it’s something that Brandeis does very well… we reach across and cooperate.”

Within physics, the department of energy also receives federal funding. In their lab, the experimental group is helping to build a large hadron collider by making part of one particular detector, called a muon detector, and so some of the funding goes to materials. Wardle said it is a “huge collaboration with thousands of people,” and “It’s great because we are players together with several other local universities on one of the biggest projects in the world.”

The large grants the science departments receive also fund graduate and undergraduate students, especially those who do summer research programs. A summer salary is “common throughout the sciences,” explained Wardle because while Brandeis pays the professors for a nine month salary, the NSF allows professors to earn a two-month salary during the summer.

In the Life Sciences department, the main source of funding for research is from the National Institute of Health (NIH). The NIH also gives training grants, which are called “umbrella grants” and help to support graduate students. Graduate students are funded by the university for two years while they work as Teaching Assistants, but afterwards, the student needs a grant to continue researching. A typical individual PI grant lasts for three years at a time. NSF grants are very competitive, as only about ten to fifteen percent of applicants receive funding.

About 400 people at Brandeis are paid directly from research grants as employees, according to numbers pulled from the division of science databases by Jessica Maryott. This includes around 140 graduate and undergraduate students in departments such as biology, physics and psychology, about 130 staff members and post-doctorates and approximately 130 Ph.D students. A comparable number of others also may benefit directly or indirectly from the grants, including via summer salaries, according to Steve Karel, Senior Research and Technology Specialist of the Division of Science.

In Wardle’s field of astrophysics, there are also NASA grants. The Graybiel Lab at Brandeis, directed by James R. Lackner and Paul DiZio, was funded by NASA for many years. Researchers there studied the effects of space and zero gravity on the human body.

Wardle himself receives grants from NASA. Scientists apply not for a monetary amount but first for “observing time on the telescopes which then comes with a small budget sufficient for carrying out your project” Wardle clarified.

“[Federal funding is] a hugely important thing for the university, and like life blood for the scientists, because this is how you get to have a lab, and do your research and publish it and work with graduate students,” said Wardle. He compared a biology lab to a small village based on the sheer number of professors, graduate and undergraduate students and others that participate in the research.

The threat that the grants like the NSF may get cut back is very prevalent and has been an issue for years.

At present, President Trump proposed to cut 11 percent of the NSF’s 2018 budget, and while the original proposal of cutting $672 million from NSF’s six research directorates was rejected by the House spending panel, the same budget that the directorates received this year of $6.03 billion was approved, according to sciencemag.org. For undergraduates especially, doing research in college is often the start of their career as scientists and it is a very necessary experience to have.

As Wardle explained of the power of research, “we are training the next generation of scientists.” In that way, having funding available for the sciences is vital for research to continue, as it allows many opportunities to open for both students and professors.

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