Research Funding Takes a Hit at USM

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — University of Southern Mississippi biology professor Shahid Karim is fascinated by ticks.

Why? Well, humans have the best immune systems on Earth, he says, and yet they seem defenseless against these tiny parasites.

"They attach to our body, we don't sense anything," he said. "Then they steal our blood, and we don't feel any inflammation."

For the past 12 years — four with USM — Karim has been putting ticks under the microscope.

In his research lab on the Hattiesburg campus, Karim and a team of eight students study the molecular structure of tick saliva.

Their goal is to prevent the spread of harmful bacterial diseases such as Lyme disease.

"What do they secrete? How do they secrete it? And how can we stop it?" he said.

Aiding Karim in this endeavor is a three-year, $439,000 research grant recently awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

It's just one of hundreds of external grants that make up Southern Miss' research portfolio.

But lately research funding at the university has taken a significant hit, part of a systemwide funding decline for the state's public universities.

External funding shrunk 22 percent from $521 million to $408 million for the eight public universities and University of Mississippi Medical School from Fiscal Year 2011 to 2012.

For USM, funding has fallen from $82 million in FY 2010 to $78 million in FY 2011 to $63 million in FY 2012.

The source of that decline is obvious. While dollars from state and private sources have actually increased over the past two years ($12 million in FY '10 to $20 million in FY '12), federal support has fallen from $70 million to $43 million.

"It's a time of uncertainty," said Gordon Cannon, USM vice provost for research.

Cannon said his researchers have held their own when it comes to competitive grants. Since the earmark moratorium that went into effect two years ago, the university has lost roughly $17 million in federal earmarked dollars.

And further budget cuts appear to be on the horizon.

"All the talk that you hear is how if we're really going to cut the deficit, we're all going to have to take a hit," Cannon said. "I think the number that you often hear is something like 8.3 percent should sequestration go into effect."

Sequestration means automatic, across-the-board federal government cuts scheduled to go into effect in January.

"If you're ultimately trying to cut the deficit, the one thing you don't want to cut is research, right? Because the only way you're going to grow your way out of the deficit is by the revenue created by new jobs and new industries that ultimately come from research," Cannon said.

The number is actually 8.2 percent in mandatory cuts for the federal research and development programs that amount to 2 percent of the annual federal budget.

For the National Science Foundation's $7 billion budget, it would mean around $600 million disappearing in the night.

The cuts, totaling $109 billion annually, are scheduled as a result of the 2011 debt ceiling deal, in which Congress failed to find $1.2 trillion in required spending cuts.

President Barack Obama has said sequestration will not happen.

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said he too expects Congress will pass legislation to avert this dire "meat axe" style of cutting that would include $500 billion in future defense spending.

"There is no way that sequestration is going to help the economy," he said.

But he said a divided Washington will make it more difficult for an agreement to be reached.

"It would be tougher to reach a grand bargain," he said.

One of the measures to fill the current funding gap is to get private sources more involved in the act.

USM received $16.8 million in private, corporate and other sources last year.

That's the strategy proposed by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann in his SMART business act, which offers a 10 percent tax credit to Mississippi private businesses for their research payments to universities.

An earlier version of the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate last year. Now Hosemann is crafting another bill to be introduced at the next legislative session.

Hosemann said he believes that the bill is a "much-needed step" with universities facing budget constrictions both at the federal and state level.

It's good for business too, he said.

"With the equipment already in place at these universities," said Hosemann, "It's less expensive for a business to hire the universities to do their research than to try to replicate the costs (on their own site)."

Cannon said the bill, if passed, will have a modest impact on funding, citing the success of a similar law in Louisiana.

"We'll probably push funding up some, but it's not going to become 70 percent (of our portfolio) because of this bill," he said.

Another proposal is for researchers to apply for funding outside federal sources such as NIH, NSF and other traditional federal agencies in that alphabet soup.

"You have to look for funding that is outside the box," Karim said.

That's exactly what Karim has done. Beyond obtaining the NIH grant, Karim has snagged a four-year $300,000 grant from the American Heart Association for his research.

He is also working on a three-year grant to help build a tick-research lab at a university in his native Pakistan, where livestock accounts for more than 11 percent of the gross domestic product.

The joint U.S.-Pakistan cooperative program is funded, in part, by a $350,000 State Department grant.

The goal of Karim's research is to prevent tick-borne diseases at a time when such cases are on the rise across the United States.

Moreover, research into tick saliva could lead to medicinal developments in the area of blood thinners, as scientists unlock the ticks' secret in maintaining a steady flow of blood from their host.

That's not possible, he says, when there are no resources to fund it.

"In microbiology, you have a grocery list," Karim said. "Your equipment costs a lot of money. Luckily, we have a lot of equipment, but how will we run that? How will we maintain that? It's difficult."

It also can't be done without graduate students, two of whom will be funded by the Karim's NIH grant. USM funds 185 graduate students through external funding, at an average of $16,000 for 12 months.

"Research funding is the vein to train our students," he said.


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