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UM, MSU, Wayne State communities could suffer if feds scale back on research funding

1/25/22 Science and research in the Core Facilities Labs.
Austin Thomason/UM Photography, Austin Thomason
1/25/22 Science and research in the Core Facilities Labs.

Research and Development funding across the U.S. may take a hit as federal budget negotiations continue.

Michigan has three major research universities that rely on federal dollars that come from three grant-awarding scientific agencies.

To find out more about how this could impact Michigan communities, Michigan Public's All Things Considered host Rebecca Kruth spoke to University of Michigan sociology professor Jason Owen-Smith. He’s also the executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science.

Rebecca Kruth: First, let's go back to August 2022. You and other university researchers were celebrating the passage of the Chips and Science Act. That federal legislation pledged a massive cash infusion to science and technology research. That was then. Where are things now?

Jason Owen-Smith: Yeah, it's really interesting. The Chips and Science Act had two parts: CHIPS, a big investment for microelectronics, particularly semiconductors. And Science, a big investment in fundamental research. The CHIPS part was appropriated money. The Science Act was what's called "authorized" money. Congress, they said, "We'll go ahead and appropriate it in future budget discussions."

This was a really significant amount of money. It was $81 billion over a five year period, which would have more than doubled the National Science Foundation's budget. But [Congress is] not actually very good at appropriating money. And if things continue as they are, we're going to be about $7 billion behind the targets they set.

RK: Let's set up the landscape here in Michigan. Can you just tell us a little bit about the research industry here?

JOS: We're a state that has three major research powerhouse universities: The University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State. We're one of the very few states that has all of its major research universities being public.

I know the University of Michigan's numbers best. University of Michigan did about $1.9 billion of research in the last year. That work spans pretty much every field of science, engineering, technology... Into the social sciences and humanities. A lot of people learn the expertise they need to be the next generation of innovators outside of universities by working on research projects while they're students.

We also buy stuff when we purchase those goods and services. A significant chunk of the money that comes to universities actually gets dispersed really quickly through these purchasing relationships into the broader local economy. And it touches people all over who may not even realize that they're connected to the university research, or to this federal science funding.

RK: I know in her State of the State address this week, Governor Whitmer said that she wants Michigan to be a global leader in tech, manufacturing and clean energy. And you're saying that research disinvestment will leave America behind other countries? Could Michigan step into the void?

JOS: I think so. Traditionally, the state has not done a ton of funding of research.

If the federal government is making big investments, the state's role can be in helping to support and coordinate universities and local businesses and nonprofits to partner to pursue those larger investments from the federal government.

If those aren't forthcoming, becomes harder and perhaps more money has to come locally. And so the state could step into the void. And sometimes they do in targeted ways. But it would be a change.

RK: So looking at the big picture, what could all of this mean for a state that's trying to compete in a global research market?

JOS: I think our state, it depends very heavily on this set of universities who are very oriented toward federal funding, may be a little bit more at risk.

I think the real worry here, long term: the training of the next generation of folks that this state and many other states are seeking to develop. The fewer of those people we have, the fewer of those people we're training locally, the harder and harder it's going to be to compete to bring them here.

I think our best bet is a state is for people to come here, work here, discover how wonderful it is to live here, and stay.

Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Katheryne Friske is the weekend morning host and producer for All Things Considered.
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