A Minute With...

Peter Schiffer, expert on research funding

2/3/2014  8:00 am

Peter Schiffer is a professor of physics and the vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he oversees the university’s $580 million-plus research enterprise. He was interviewed by News Bureau editor Jeff Unger.

What’s your overall take on how science fares in the congressional budget deal released Jan. 13?

image of vice chancellor peter schifferScientific research creates knowledge and products, innovations that help create jobs and drive our country’s economic prosperity. The cuts from sequestration and the uncertainty of recent months were particularly onerous for researchers, who often need to plan their work over many years, and this budget agreement provides both relief and some hope that the future funding of research will be more stable.

I am grateful to the entire Illinois congressional delegation for supporting the budget compromise. No one got everything they wanted, but we hope this bodes well for a more collaborative and pragmatic Congress. We appreciate the strong support that the university receives from the delegation on this front and many others.

What stands out to you about the agreement in terms of which agencies and projects would see changes in funding?

As with all budgets, the outcome varied. Some agencies, like the Department of Agriculture, NASA and the Department of Energy's Office of Science saw slight increases to their budgets. Others, like the National Insittutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, were funded below their FY13 pre-sequester levels.

But the good news for all research agencies is that – for the first time in three years – Congress is re-asserting its role in the appropriations process. This is a particularly good thing because agencies no longer have to run on autopilot and can now fund “new starts.” This means that there will be more new opportunities for Illinois to compete, particularly in agriculture, which saw increased funding.

How might this deal affect the University of Illinois?

The greatest impact of this deal is in providing a more predictable future for the agency budgets, at least for the near-term. We will have a better sense for what the agencies are able to offer, and we can plan accordingly.

While we are grateful that the agency budgets have been stabilized and that there have been some small increases, the overall pace of research funding in this nation is not keeping up with that of other countries around the world. Given the importance of the national research enterprise to our economic prosperity and national security, I am hopeful that future budgets might see much more robust increases.

In the short term, the landscape for Illinois is very competitive, and we need to provide as much support as possible to our faculty and other researchers and work hard to reduce the administrative burdens they sometimes face. Our researchers are among the best in the world, and we will compete well when opportunities do exist.

Many people tend to think of funding for research in terms of the biological, social and physical sciences, but what about the arts and humanities? How do those areas fare under the deal?

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each received very modest increases of 0.2 percent over FY2013 levels.

Work in these areas is a critical part of the scholarly and creative enterprise at Illinois, and it is essential to the overall vitality of the university research community. On our campus, we have set up some innovative programs to support our faculty members who want to pursue the very competitive grants in these areas. And because federal support is particularly limited in the arts and in the humanities, we appreciate that they must be supported by internal funds as well.

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