Sen. Durbin promotes research agenda during NIU visit

With a decline in federal scientific research threatening America’s standing as a leader in discovery and innovation and our global competitiveness, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today called for greater federal investment in scientific and biomedical research during a visit to Northern Illinois University.

Durbin discussed two recent pieces of legislation—the American Cures Act and the American Innovation Act, which would create a mandatory fund to provide steady, predicable funding for breakthrough research at America’s top research agencies—with NIU President Doug Baker, Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer and research professors and students as part of a roundtable discussion. Approximately 40 other NIU faculty members and administrators attended the discussion.

DurbinRoundtable4-7“The American Cures and Innovation Acts will make funding for critical science research projects less political and more predictable. They will allow America’s smartest scientists and researchers to spend less time figuring out how to cut their budgets and more time finding new ways to produce clean energy and clean water and other solutions that the world needs,” Durbin said. “U.S. government support for scientific research has helped split the atom, defeat polio, conquer space, create the Internet, map the human genome and much more. I introduced these bills so that we can continue to invest in the best ideas of our scientists and America will remain the land of the future for generations to come.”

“Innovation and research are critical elements to our nation’s success in the highly competitive global marketplace. NIU’s distinguishing roles in research and engagement provide our students and faculty members the opportunity to perform world-leading research and to promote regional and international research collaboration,” said Baker, who was recently elected as the chair of Council of Presidents for the University Research Association (URA), a primary stakeholder in the Department of Energy contract that supports Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “These ideals are central to NIU’s mission and vision and support the student career success agenda by connecting students and faculty together with the world.”

In addition to Baker and Lockyer, discussion panelists included Board of Trustees Professor of Micropaleontology and Biostratigraphy Reed Scherer, Presidential Research Professor Beth Gaillard (Departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry & Biochemistry), Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Sherine Elsawa, Associate Professor of mechanical Engineering Federico Sciammarella and biochemistry and biophysics Ph.D. student Kalyan Karumanchi.

x-NIU Geology Professor Reed Scherer holds a sediment sample recovered from the grounding zone
NIU Geology Professor Reed Scherer holds a sediment sample

Each told of how federal funding has impacted their research and careers. Due to sequestration and a partial government shutdown in 2013, Scherer’s research into climate change in Antarctica was lost for an entire year. His team did return to Antarctica this winter where it discovered an ecosystem that was previously not thought to have existed in addition to new information about the ice shelf.

“I’ve been studying the Antarctic ice sheet’s responses to climate change for nearly 30 years,” Scherer said, complementing the NSF for its budgetary transparency and ethical management in a constrained fiscal environment. “Securing research funding has never been easy, but the challenge to young scientists trying to build a career in academic research is greater now than at any time in memory.”

Elizabeth Gaillard
Elizabeth Gaillard

Gaillard received funding from the NIH for a research project studying oxygen levels in the eye that has implications for eye diseases such as cataracts and advanced macular degeneration. This project has not been able to continue due to a lack of funding.

After completing her Ph.D., Elsawa spent eight years as a postdoctoral trainee at the Mayo Clinic because of the incredibly limited supply of academic positions. She said the average postdoctoral trainee in the biomedical research field spends seven years before getting their first faculty position, and the average age of a recipient’s first major independent grant funding has risen to 42 years. Trainees become long-term “super post-docs,” they give up on academic positions and go into industry, or some—like Karumanchi, who hails from India—consider returning to their native countries, meaning an investment is made in training people who are not able to contribute further to training new scientists in the U.S.

“Mentors are now competing with their mentees for the same pot of limited federal dollars available,” Elsawa added. “Therefore what happens is we have a model where survival of the fittest becomes survival of the one with more experience – the senior faculty. This makes it challenging for junior faculty to jump-start their careers.”

Federico Sciammarella: 3D printing ultimately will have a huge impact on the way things are manufactured.
Federico Sciammarella: 3D printing ultimately will have a huge impact on the way things are manufactured.

Sciammarella received federal support from NIST for his research leading to technology on laser-assisted machining of ceramics and is now transitioning this technology to the marketplace with the support of two NIU Venture Grants.

According to materials provided by Sen. Durbin’s office, the American Innovation Act will provide annual budget increases of 5 percent for cutting edge research at five important federal research agencies: The National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the Department of Defense Science and Technology Programs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Scientific and Technical Research and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Science Directorate. This steady, long-term investment would allow the agencies to plan and manage strategic growth while maximizing efficiencies.

The American Cures Act, which Durbin introduced last year, would provide annual budget increases of 5 percent plus inflation at America’s top four biomedical research agencies: National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Department of Defense Health Program (DHP), and the Veterans Medical & Prosthetics Research Program.

Durbin-roundtable-4-7Federal funding for research and development has been on a downward trend for the past several decades. According to a press release, the federal government spends almost two-thirds less on R&D today than it did in 1965 as a portion of discretionary spending. Accounting for inflation, federal funding for science has lost 20 percent in purchasing power in just three years. The lack of funding has led to a $1.5 trillion investment deficit, and a growing number of America’s best young researchers are taking their talents to other industries – and other countries. Durbin’s legislation aims to reverse that trend and close the nation’s invention and innovation deficit.

“NIU faculty and staff are fortunate to have witnessed Senator’s Durbin’s enlightened philosophy and approach on the critical importance of education, research and infrastructure towards securing U.S. global leadership in human progress, of which science and technology is a crucial part,” said NIU Professor of Physics and Director of Accelerator Research Swapan Chattopadhyay, who serves on the Fermilab director’s senior leadership team through a joint appointment. “The importance of a minimal annual additional investment of a 5 percent on top of inflation to the national funding of scientific and technological research, as he has proposed, is music to our ears. The exceptionally talented, dedicated and oustanding scientific and engineering faculty of NIU will look forward to the success of such enhanced funding.”

Classified as a Research University (high research activity) by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NIU is one of 16 inaugural Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities, recognized by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities for working with public and private sector partners to support economic development through innovation and entrepreneurship; technology transfer; and talent, workforce, and community development.

Durbin-Roundtable-4-7-15To support this work, NIU faculty and staff secured and utilized $36 million in external funding for Fiscal Year 2014, a 19 percent increase over Fiscal Year 2013. These funds were attained by 141 faculty and staff through 375 awards supporting a wide range of research, instruction and service projects.

The diversity of these funded projects is great and reflects the exceptional talent and expertise of NIU faculty and staff who are leaders in their field. These projects support research in areas ranging from additive manufacturing to environmental sustainability and emphasize collaborations that bring interdisciplinary teams together to address critical societal needs.

Over the last decade, while the U.S. was increasing federal R&D investments 4 percent a year, China was increasing its R&D investments by 20 percent a year. If the current course is maintained, China will be investing more in R&D than the U.S. as soon as the year 2020. According to The Science Coalition, China already performs nearly as much of the world’s high-tech manufacturing today as does the U.S.

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