The new Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratory will be housed in the University of Akron’s new engineering research building. Credit: University of Akron.

Back in July, the top story in national news was the budget and the debate over the debt ceiling. In the 11th hour Congress and the president came to an agreement that raised the United States’ debt ceiling and avoided a potential government default.

What this episode and perhaps others in the future means for US research universities is unclear but probably not good, according to an Aug. 12 article in Science by Jeffrey Mervis. The budget bill holds all discretionary spending static for the next two years and calls for trimming out $917 billion over the next ten years, and R&D comprises around 12% of federal discretionary spending. Mervis cites lobbyists who estimate that cuts in discretionary spending starting in 2013, including most research programs, will be in the range of 7-11%.

On  the other hand, President Obama had requested increases of 13% for the NSF and 12% for DOE’s Office of Science.

The funding stall-out is disappointing, especially in light of all the attention that the administration and funding agencies are giving to innovation and manufacturing initiatives, specifically the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and the Materials Genome Initiative. However, according to the article, the administration says there is enough money to advance research programs, although “the agreement doesn’t spell out how the money will be allocated across federal agencies.”

The future is anything but clear as the House and Senate have yet to determine their 2012 spending priorities and begin the painful slog through the 2013 budget cuts. Mervis in the article, sums up the views of a staffer at MIT’s federal relations office, William Bonvillian, noting that “[Bonvillian] thinks there are simply too many variables, including a presidential election, to even hazard a guess beyond 2012.”

Meanwhile, a recent Nature News article first reminds readers that Congress commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to advise them on effective ways of providing long-term stability to research universities without increasing investment much more, and then article goes on to say that the NAS recommendations are expected to be released before the end of the year. (The Nature article did not say when the study was commissioned, but NAS studies typically span about 18 months, so the study had to have been commissioned before this year’s epic budget battle.)

Although the NAS document, being developed by a 21-person “influential” group of researchers, business people and university administrators,” is still in its draft stages, Nature says it was able to learn that it will probably call for universities to become more thriftier and much more efficient (the story also refers to it as “fat trimming”). One recommendation will be for researchers to economize by “sharing equipment, facilities and supervision duties—not only between research groups, but even between institutions in the same city.” The example cited is collaboration programs like the multi-institutional DOE Energy Innovation Hubs.

The NAS report is expected to urge federal and state funding agencies to simplify regulations that apply to research grants, especially regarding reporting. The article says the report will also recommend that funding agencies pay the full indirect cost of research (i.e., overhead). In 1991 Congress capped indirect costs at 26%, despite actual overhead amounting to about 30%.

According to the article, research universities have been tapping undergraduate tuition fees to make up the difference. (For years, universities have been selling prospective students and their parents on the research opportunities available to undergrads. Undergrads would be well advised to participate if they are helping pay for it.) The NAS panel realizes that calling for more overhead spending in an era of flat budgets will mean less money for research. The article says the panel’s solution to the dilemma is that the report “will urge the government to target funding strategically, concentrating on research areas with the greatest potential to produce innovation and jobs.”

The problem, of course, was eloquently stated by American zoologist Marston Bates, “Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.”

There is another way, which may prove to be an effective mechanism for funding university research. Because it has a grassroots-or perhaps boutique-flavor, it may not get as much press beyond local interest.

Last week the University of Akron and the Timken Company announced a “specialized research” collaboration to “accelerate technology development.” The press release says Timken will provide funding and equipment valued at about $5 million to establish the new Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratory. Timken’s chief technologist Gary Doll will join the academic ranks and lead the lab’s efforts when he assumes a newly established endowed chair.

The dean of UA’s College of Engineering says in the press release that the agreement “creates a new, important platform for innovation that will benefit our engineering students, Timken, UA, and the region through our joint research and commercialization efforts.”

That is, innovation… and jobs.

(For some of the tenor that is going to be coming out of the NAS report, check out the recent video of a presentation Chad Holliday, one of the members of the aforementioned 21-person NAS panel, made July 15th to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.)