Research at University sees decline in funding

By Rachel Rubin

Tony Liss sits in front of his computer and pensively reviews the budget for the high energy physics department in the Loomis Lab. Decisions between new equipment, more travel and hiring more researchers run through his head.

But there’s just not enough money to do it all.

Liss, University professor in high-energy physics, is among many researchers at the University and around the country who are feeling the pinch from recent budget cuts by the federal government. The National Science Foundation released statistics in August that confirmed a two-year decline in scientific funding, which failed to outpace inflation.

For the past four years, Liss has been working on a project called ATLAS Detector at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, located in Geneva, Switzerland. Fourteen researchers at the University collaborate with other institutions to work with the fastest and highest-energy accelerators in the world. ATLAS uses half of the physics department’s total grant, which must be renewed every three years to keep funding continual.

“It’s really a question, ‘At what level will they continue to fund you?'” Liss said. “They’re continually invested in the project, and we are the people who produce what they are looking for.”

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In the high-energy physics field, all universities have a base grant. The budget goes through Congress, then the U.S. Department of Energy and then trickles down to a universal university budget. Liss estimated the government invests $2 million a year on the University’s physics department.

Ninety percent is used to pay the researchers and graduate students, and most of the rest is used for travel expenses. A research graduate, for example, will use $40,000 from the grant alone. After fringes and overhead charges from the University, the student will only see $20,000.

Liss said many graduates want to help out, but the grant just won’t fund them.

James Coggeshall, a third-year graduate student working on ATLAS, explained that it is fairly common knowledge that funding cuts have been made, but he has watched his adviser make ends meet.

“I definitely get the sense when there is not enough money,” Coggeshall said. “Us graduate students remain more or less blissfully ignorant.”

So what has caused the federal government’s research funding to slip? Besides the economic recession and high defense expenditures, the U.S. is in a ‘continuing resolution,’ or a budget that has continued from last year.

In Liss’ case, the Department of Energy must protect itself from a lower budget being approved at any point, so it must appropriate funds with caution.

“We should be investing substantially more to keep up with global competition, said Ravi Iyer, vice chancellor for research at the University. “This is not a time where we should be faltering in our investment,”

Unlike some other schools, Iyer states the University will not be dipping into undergraduate tuition funds to make up the difference in federal funding.

“We don’t use our tuition to promote faculty research, which might be at the expense of the undergraduate,” Iyer said. “Illinois is traditionally very careful with how we use student tuition.”

Iyer said he remains positive that Illinois’ high quality of research will work through any monetary problems.

“If you just chase after money, you’re not in the competition for ideas,” Iyer said. “In the end it is the competition for ideas.”