Exiting provost speaks on braving funding cuts

Exiting provost speaks on braving funding cuts

Researchers at MIT facing funding troubles due to the federal budget sequester can rely on the Institute for “bridge funding” in the short term but may have to downsize their labs or adjust their research programs in the long term, exiting provost Chris Kaiser said in an interview.

“People are concerned about whether the research they’ve grown up doing — the research program they’ve put together since they were a postdoc or assistant professor — [will] be sustained in the next decade,” he said.

The sequester, a set of sweeping cuts in federal spending that took effect in March, will likely affect basic science research more than engineering research, Kaiser said.

In May, VP for Research Maria Zuber predicted “a decrease in research volume in campus of about three to four percent.”

Federal funding for on-campus research fell $6.6 million, or 1.4 percent, from FY 2012 in FY 2013, according to the treasurer’s report released Friday. Fiscal 2013 ended in June, so a third of that period was affected by the sequester. But funding at any given time often depends on decisions made months or years ago.

Kaiser echoed Zuber’s assurances that MIT was in a good position to weather the sequester, given its size and competitiveness. “Frankly MIT has a lot more resources in the bank than almost any other institution, other than a couple of Ivy League schools. MIT is doing incredibly well.”

But because departments may be affected unevenly, a small dip in MIT’s overall federal funding could translate to tough choices for some faculty members, Kaiser said.

MIT will help cover facilities and administrative (F&A) costs, also known as overhead, Kaiser said. He said that this would help faculty apply for grants from non-federal sources like foundations that do not cover the 56 cents of F&A per dollar of direct funding that MIT requires.

These measures and others are intended to help affected labs transition to times when funding will be harder to obtain. The affected labs may have to either shrink or “redirect basic research to applied research” in order to more easily justify funding. Support from MIT would give students and staff time to find new jobs, if necessary.

“That readjustment period is a very vulnerable period,” Kaiser said. “It’s very painful to write layoff notices.”

—Leon Lin