John DiGiovanni

Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

Ongoing budget cuts are taking their toll on UT researchers and students in the form of grant cancellations, delayed projects and diminished assistance from federal agencies.

The government shutdown earlier this fall caused UT researchers to miss important grant-submission deadlines and slowed the grant processing procedure, but John DiGiovanni, a cancer researcher and pharmacy and nutritional sciences professor, said these troubles are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Federal funding for research grants has been on the decline, and automatic federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — have exacerbated the trend. For example, the National Science Foundation will accept nearly 1,000 fewer grant applications for this fiscal year. In addition, the National Institutes of Health will be forced to cut its 2013 fiscal year budget by 5 percent — or $1.55 billion. 

“The meeting of the grant review panel that I serve on for the NIH has been cancelled,” DiGiovanni said. “On top of that, we’ve seen delays in funding for grants.”

President William Powers Jr., who is the newly elected chairman of the Association of American Universities — a consortium of 62 public and private research universities — traveled to Washington D.C. early this November to speak with legislators and voice his concerns over the cuts, which, he said, impede students’ abilities to be a part of research that could change the world.

But it’s not only the federal grant budget that is under review, according to economics professor Daniel Hamermesh. The budgets of administrative agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education, are seeing substantial cuts. Cuts to these agencies’ budgets hamper their ability to collect raw data that UT researchers rely on, Hamermesh said. 

“More funding is better, and these fields [the social sciences] are not highly paid,” Hamermesh said. “But what’s worse is killing important data sets.” 

The decline of federal funding for basic research is not a new phenomenon. Historically, government dollars accounted for a majority of those spent on science research in the United States, but that trend has reversed of late, with private and corporate research funding taking precedence. 

Though researchers have lost the security of federal grants, some students, such as engineering sophomore Katherine Magee, see opportunities in growing private funding for research. “Government grants are certainly important in building the University, but so much of the research we have access to is in the private sector,” Magee said. “So for me, that private funding for research is almost more important than government grants.”

As the federal government shutdown heads into a second week, UT researchers find themselves missing grant submission deadlines and worrying about their prospects for funding in the next fiscal year.

Substantial amounts of research are funded every year by grants from federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2011, federal agencies awarded more than $154 million to UT researchers.

Though most funding comes through direct grants, cooperative and pass-through grants involving federal and state partnerships also play a role in the research funding process and all are affected by the government shutdown.

Because the review of grant applications is classified by the federal government as a nonessential operation, grant review has come to a complete halt.

“Many employees at the NIH have been furloughed and the agency is currently not processing new grant applications,” said John DiGiovanni, a cancer researcher and pharmacy and nutritional sciences professor.

Though Grants.gov, the federally maintained grant submission website, is remaining active through the shutdown with reduced staff and funding, no grant proposals will be downloaded from the site or reviewed.

“The grant submission process is really in suspense right now,” said John G. Ekerdt, associate dean for research in the Cockrell School of Engineering. “At this time, there’s no one to process grants and the sites for grant submission are down.” 

Despite the shutdown, which has brought the grant review process to a halt, grant money that has already been doled out is safe. Ekerdt said money already allocated by previous grants is in the hands of researchers and can be used without complication.

“No ongoing projects have been canceled because [of] funding issues from the government shutdown,” University spokesman Robert Meckel said.

Travel preparations and university-provided funding will also remain unaffected through the shutdown. The UT International Office is still processing passport applications to keep study and work abroad on track, and there are a variety of research opportunities through the University open to both graduate and undergraduate students.

But the government shutdown is just one aspect of larger funding issues that have been plaguing researchers for years, DiGiovanni said. Federal funding has been dwindling since the federal sequestration earlier this year, which DiGiovanni said affects the ability of the University to hire. 

“We’ve all been affected by the sequestration that took place earlier this year — it’s been hard on many of us that rely on grant money for our research and it’s caused funding cuts on top of already serious cuts to federal funding,” DiGiovanni said. “These cuts have seriously impacted our ability to hire and retain personnel and to make research progress.”

Correction: In the Oct. 8 edition of this article in The Daily Texan a reporting error was made.  Federal funding given to UT researchers was incorrectly reported as $154 billion. The correct amount is $154 million. This correction was run in the Oct. 9 edition of The Daily Texan.

Researchers from UT and the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center have found a gene that indicates non-threatening nonmelanoma skin cancer susceptibility.

The new find can lead to more information and possible treatment of the various forms of nonmelanoma cancers, said John DiGiovanni, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, pharmacy and nutritional sciences.

“Our discovery will primarily impact the prevention of nonmelanoma skin cancer by helping to identify high-risk individuals and by identifying novel molecular targets for future prevention strategies,” DiGiovanni said. “We want to understand how this gene works, as it could lead to model molecular data for possible prevention.”

Nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, are the most common forms of skin cancer — and while they aren’t life-threatening, they can cause disfigurements and have lasting side effects on the skin, DiGiovanni said.

He served as director of the MD Anderson Center from 1997 to 2009. He hopes this research will help find treatments and links to other skin and pediatric cancers, like melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma.

“We started working on identifying cancer susceptibility genes in mice almost 30 years ago with the intent of finding genes that would also be involved in human cancer susceptibility,” DiGiovanni said. “Our original interest came from our early studies in mice that showed wide variation to both chemically-induced and UVB-induced skin cancer susceptibility among different inbred strains of mice.”

MD Anderson professor Joe Angel, who worked with DiGiovanni, primarily conducted genetic studies which led to the identification of the gene as a candidate for non-melanoma cancers.

Angel said the impacts of this research will be far-reaching in terms of finding genes that lead to susceptibility of melanoma, lymphoma, leukemia, liver and lung cancers.

“We’re still working on finding more of these genes,” Angel said. “These findings could lead to novel approaches in the prevention of skin and other kinds of cancers out there.”