For much of the last century, the US was unquestionably the world's economic leader — and not by accident.
The economic engine was powered by the resolve of government leaders, particularly after World War II, to invest in research and development.
Most basic scientific research, roughly 55 percent, is conducted at a core group of the nation's leading universities. But years of static funding — due to budget pressures, a shift to investing in private research, and other reasons — in some areas of research and a clear decline in others have many local and national researchers and university leaders worried.
The amount that the US invests in R&D has declined from 37 percent to about 30 percent since 2001, they say. And if the trend continues, they say, the local and national ramifications could be grave.
"Every major research university is totally dependent on federal funding," says Rob Clark, the University of Rochester's senior vice president for research. "That's the key issue. We've had a decline in US commitment to research funding compared to surges everywhere around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. We're really fighting at the core for our competitiveness and innovation."
Clark and Stephen Dewhurst, vice dean for research at the UR's School of Medicine and Dentistry, say that if the trend continues, the country's position as the global leader in R&D and biotech is threatened.
And there is an added threat, Dewhurst says, because the US is not adequately training the next generation of Ph.D.-level scientists.
While there is increased interest in US competitiveness in science, technology, engineering, and math — the STEM fields — Dewhurst says he fears that students will be less interested in becoming academic scientists.
"How do we keep young people engaged in the field?" he asks. "How do we better train young scientists? It's obviously a critical mission for us [the UR], but it's critical for the country, and the Rochester community, specifically."
The UR is roughly a $2 billion annual enterprise that's received nearly $2 billion in federal funding for research and development over the last five years. The research component not only employs about one-fifth of the UR's staff, it's also one of the main thrusts in the region's economy, supporting all sorts of goods and services.
Researchers say that part of the problem is that the university's scientific communities haven't done a great job explaining how research is funded in the US. And they say that the public probably doesn't realize that research at universities is behind advances in everything from cell phones to medical care to national security.
The public hears about universities having significant endowments and they often think that money covers the cost of most research, Clark says. But that's not remotely possible even for leading research universities such as Johns Hopkins, he says.
The UR receives about 76 percent of its research funding from federal sources including the National Institutes of Health, Clark says. But those funds don't cover the cost of faculty or the infrastructure that is usually needed to conduct high-quality research, he says.
Endowments, which already suffer from mounting demands, are used to bridge that gap, he says.
"The three core sources of revenue are gifts and revenue that come from donations to the institution; grants; and tuition from undergraduate and graduate programs," Clark says. "And for every dollar in government funding for research, the real cost to the university is somewhere between $1.30 and $1.50."
And the contraction in funding causes a particular kind of mayhem because of the way it complicates the flow of basic research, Clark says, which essentially is an evolutionary process. Research is generally built layer upon layer around a specific idea, he says.
"You stay really nervous," Clark says. "The people who do this for a living are effectively nervous about funding all the time now because you have a responsibility to your group, some of which will have 10 to 20 people in them.
"The bottom line is you're worrying every day about the next day and how you're going to sustain your group," he says. "You constantly have to be thinking forward. In this era it's kind of feeling like being hand to mouth."
The funding issue also impacts universities' physical space, Clark says. There was a period of time when the NIH was essentially saying, "Grow your institution to meet the funding," he says. So universities began expanding.
But because the funding has been reduced and the space no longer needed, institutions are faced with maintaining buildings that aren't being used for research.
Reductions to research funding also impact the type of research that gets funded, Dewhurst says. Though many students can find rewarding careers in industry, he says, there are specific advantages to grooming scientists in an academic environment, namely risk-taking.
Basic or what some researchers call "blue-sky research" is more often the type that leads to big breakthroughs and transformative innovation, Dewhurst says. Both Clark and Dewhurst are concerned that fewer grants are being awarded for the most creative and ambitious ideas.
"Anything that's sort of out there or too creative or innovative, it's very difficult to fund those," Dewhurst says. "And you lose some really creative ideas."
Rochester Institute of Technology, however, is currently bucking the trend, says Ryne Raffaelle, vice president for research and associate provost. RIT's R&D funding grew by 12 percent in its latest fiscal year, reaching nearly $53 million.
But RIT has focused more on what is referred to as applied research, Raffaelle says, which often takes innovations to the next level by working with industry partners on a commercial use.
Still, some work is not reaching that basic fruition, says the UR's Dewhurst. He cites NIH director Dr. Francis Collins who made headlines during the recent alarm over the Ebola virus. Collins was quoted on Huffington Post.com saying that stagnant funding has slowed research and may have delayed the development of an Ebola vaccine.
But Clark says that he doesn't want to paint a completely dire picture of the funding situation, which has been known to be cyclical. There are some upsides to it, he says, including the fact that the UR has essentially been forced to focus its goals. An example: the $100 million commitment to data science made by the university.
"We have a medical center that manages more than 50 percent of the area's health care," Clark says. "We can learn a lot about health care in a broader population from that data."
And UR officials say that they have made a concerted effort to make the most efficient use of the money they receive. The UR ranks 49th in the nation in total research expenditures and its medical school ranks 32nd in NIH funding.
But Clark says that when the total amount of research activity is compared to the size of its research faculty, the UR comes in at a feisty 17th in a field of approximately 100 research universities.
"We punch way above our weight," Clark says. "The UR is extremely productive."