For more than a decade, the University of Washington has used federal research funding to help finance a $1.1 billion building boom in labs and research offices — 15 buildings in all.
But now the Trump administration is talking of sharply curtailing the overhead costs that can be included in research grants.
Those so-called “indirect” costs cover salaries of hundreds of staffers who help with research support — and constructing new lab and office space.
Presidential budgets are rarely enacted as-is, and President Donald Trump’s proposal is thin on details. Still, the UW — which receives more federal research funding than any other public university in the country — is taking the situation seriously.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce went to Washington, D.C., this month to lobby on behalf of the university. And during a visit to Seattle earlier in April, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray toured UW lab space in South Lake Union and said the proposed cuts would be devastating to the university.
In his budget, Trump has proposed an 18 percent cut to National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, one of the largest sources of research money for the UW.
Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services secretary, has said the cuts could come from indirect expenses.
Most federal research money goes to direct costs of research — the salaries and benefits of researchers, the specific supplies and equipment they need to do their work, publication costs and travel to conferences. In fiscal year 2016, NIH paid out $16.9 billion in direct research costs.
An additional $6.4 billion of NIH money went to researchers’ indirect expenses. Universities say that overhead is part of the cost of doing research.
Last year, the UW received $247 million in indirect costs, including $138 million from NIH.
Over the years, such overhead payments have helped fund a complex of four research buildings in South Lake Union, an underground animal-research lab on the south end of campus, Foege Hall (which houses bioengineering and genome sciences), three new wings of the Magnuson Health Sciences Building and several other buildings around campus and at Harborview Medical Center.
If there’s a steep cutback in federal overhead funding, “It could affect everything, including our ability to bond future debt,” said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.
The UW does have some options if that were to happen — for example, it could sublease space in its South Lake Union campus.
When Murray toured the labs at South Lake Union earlier this month, she talked to scientists investigating malaria and asthma cures, and a woman with cystic fibrosis who’s being treated with therapies developed by these labs.
Bonnie Ramsey, a UW cystic-fibrosis researcher, told Murray she feared the cuts would dissuade young people from going into medical research. “I’m very worried we’re going to lose the next generation of scientists,” she said.
If the funding is cut, “You’re going to lose those cures for a whole generation,” Ramsey said. “The U.S. is the leader in medical research — why don’t we want to continue this momentum?”