POST-SEQUESTER: Federal Research Funding in the Near Future

Even as universities and academic medical research centers scramble to learn the details of how sequestration will affect the here-and-now, they are well advised to contemplate longer-term impact of reduced federal funding for research going forward.  While everyone in Washington appears to agree on taking steps to avert a complete government shutdown, it remains unclear whether the $85 billion sequestration is a harbinger of more cuts to come.

At Harris Search Associates, we try to understand the landscape of higher education research in order to advise our clients as they seek out the talent critical to the research agenda.  But no one can be completely certain about the next few years when so significant an element in that landscape as federal funding is caught in the crossfire of divided government.  Our advice therefore is to continue to seek out and recruit outstanding researchers and to retain productive scholars and scientists as the best hedge against an uncertain future.

First, be crystal clear on which areas of research are truly institutional strengths, mindful that no university or research organization excels in all areas of endeavor.  Even the very best institutions will need to make choices about the areas of inquiry in which they enjoy a competitive advantage.

Next, invest in the people who administer the internal processes by which proposals are developed, contracts are negotiated, compliance assured and projects administered.  As dollars become scarcer, funding agencies will seek to be all the more certain that resources are allocated to institutions that adhere to regulations and procedures and will produce findings in a timely fashion.

Third, and even as the scope of research capability of a given university or center becomes much more focused, look for convergences in research expertise that are inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional.  Funding agencies are under increased pressure to confirm that supported research addresses “big problems” such as the environment, energy, cybersecurity and the like.  Seldom do such complex issues fit neatly along academic disciplinary lines and rare is the university that alone possesses the complete capability to undertake such inquiry.

Fourth, build “bench strength” in the areas selected for research focus by targeting hiring and retention that identifies leading senior researchers and makes it possible for a senior scholar to being aboard promising talent from more junior colleagues as post-docs and doctoral students. 

Fifth, continue to leverage federal research funding in order to capture state government support and business and industry partnerships.  As some state budgets begin to improve however slightly, their governments are themselves focusing their support for research that has the potential for synergy with other funding sources’ priorities.

Last (but by no means least), look to recruit research administrative staff who are project managers par excellence and who can provide management support and training to researchers on how to get research underway and completed in a timely manner and in compliance with both the numerous regulations required by funders and the timelines set out in the original proposal.  Such professionals make good the investment of dollars to fund them by keeping on-time projects on schedule and in compliance.

Signs that may be omens portend much sterner competition for federal support.  Ultimately, talent will tell who prevails.

March 4, 2013



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