Why do some labs drown in funding while others dry up?

Research and funding go hand-in-hand, but many researchers struggle to gain traction for their ideas

Space is sexy.

So it's no wonder that research projects like the $450 million Psyche mission, which assembled a multidisciplinary mission to send a craft to explore an asteroid, make up some of the largest research endeavors at ASU. 

But beyond the labs that net big-ticket grants from NASA and the federal government, there's a host of researchers who aren't as lucky. 

For many ASU researchers, coming up with ways to pursue new questions and solutions is second nature, but convincing organizations to fund these ideas presents a new set of challenges.

Hugh Mason, an associate professor in the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, developed a trial vaccine to prevent norovirus, a highly contagious disease which has frequent outbreaks throughout the United States.

However, due to a lack of support from the medical community, the project lost some funding and experienced difficulty in moving forward.

“We had some pretty good funding for five years or so,” Mason said. “They actually ultimately led to a couple of clinical trials where volunteers would eat raw potato expressing a Norwalk virus capsid, and the idea was to look to see if they developed antibodies, which they did; but there were some shortcomings.”

But Mason said that after a certain point the research slowed because it was hard to convince funders of the need for a vaccine for norovirus, an illness that rarely kills. 

University-wide, research funding is red hot. ASU reached $604 million in research expenditures in 2018 — a new record is sure to be broken once again next year.

The steady growth is largely thanks to innovative ideas, including new medical solutions like vaccines brought in by faculty and developed in successful labs.

External funding from organizations such as NASA or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helps keep many of these labs alive and thriving, but not all labs achieve as much success as they might hope.

“Even if there haven’t been any other clinical trials for a norovirus vaccine, I’m not entirely sure that the medical community is convinced that such a vaccine is really necessary,” Mason said. “It does produce an economic burden but it’s not highly mortal.”

Mason’s case is an example of an innovative idea which struggles to find a foothold due to a lack of public support.

When it comes to deciding what to fund, it is mostly a matter of what questions are the most interesting and where can scientists take their research.

Curiosity-driven science, such as what many labs in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration pursue, aims to answer interesting questions about the world that don’t necessarily have immediate applications or propose solutions to societal problems. These include the Psyche mission, for example.

But solutions-based research can face headwinds in getting financing. This research raises questions like whether this solution is relevant to society and what cost it brings.

Part of this challenge is anticipating public needs.

“Because it's typically not a mortal disease, (the norovirus vaccine) doesn't really capture the public attention that much,” Mason said. “We had thought about marketing it as a boutique vaccine for people going on cruises, that kind of insurance, so that they would have their cruise without getting sick.”

Sethuraman Panchanathan, the executive vice president of the ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development, said it is important to consider what problems society, as well as individual corporations and organizations, want solved.

“There will always be this ebb and flow in certain things,” Panchanathan said. “Today, Alzheimer’s is getting a lot of money because people are worried about that … Cybersecurity will get a lot of money because we are worried about security. I’m confident that we will have enough for people to get some investments to advance ideas.”

Shaopeng Wang, a research professor at Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors, and his team recently received a $5.8 million grant from the NIH to develop an antimicrobial susceptibility test for bacteria.

The team of investigators are looking to solve the problems created by the overprescription of antibiotics. 

“The classic method uses cell culture, which sometimes takes a couple days or even takes a week or two,” Wang said. “It’s really slow, and doctors need to know what kind of infection you have as soon as possible. Otherwise they have to prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics, which could be wrong, and you can have a resistant strain (of bacteria) that normal drugs will not work on.”

With this grant, the team will look at the phenotype, or expressed genes of the bacteria to see if the drug will be effective.

“We could do this in an hour and a half or two hours, so it is a much shorter time,” Wang said. 

He said if is commercialized, doctors will be able to prescribe the correct drug to patients on the day of their visit.

But even for a team of investigators looking to solve a pressing issue, securing funding is not always easy to obtain.

“We’ve been working on this for several years already,” Wang said. “We’ve applied two times for smaller grants. It didn’t get funded, but we do get feedback … Sometimes it may take two or three shots, but if it’s a good idea and you keep improving it and you polish your proposal, eventually you will get funded.”

But funding difficulties threaten more than resources. They also can put livelihoods at risk. 

“The most expensive thing for doing research is really salaries,” Mason said. “I’m supporting a grad student on research assistantship, and it’s approximately the same expense as supporting a postdoc.”

If a lab loses funding, it essentially loses the abilities to support the researchers. The project ceases to develop if nobody is there to help it along.

“I used to view my research as pretty cutting edge, at least back in the nineties,” Mason said. “But I’m kind of just tweaking old technology, so I’m probably less attractive, unless maybe this vaccine synergy takes off … That might enable some funding.”

But still, there's a general sentiment of optimism about the funding environment because of an overall growth in government research investment.

Federal funding for research at ASU has increased by almost $68,150,000 over the past ten years, according to data from the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. 

“The federal government has been investing quite a bit in research,” Panchanathan said. “There is more need for research than there will always be availability."

The NIH invests nearly $37.3 billion every year in medical research and the National Science Foundation funds approximately 11,000 research proposals annually and comprise about 25 percent of federal funding support for research at academic institutions. 

In March, Congress approved a budget for the 2018 fiscal year that increased research and development spending in federal agencies more than at any point in the last decade.

The ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development remains optimistic that repeated attempts at finding funding, along with hard work and innovative ideas, can still gain traction in the scientific community and secure funding to support research as well as researchers.

“Instead of complaining about the lack of investments, (ASU) is saying, ‘Let’s go and secure investments, but let’s put the best ideas forward,’” Panchanathan said.


Reach the reporters at kalbal@asu.edu and mshrikan@asu.edu and follow @KarishmaAlbal and @MayaShrikant on Twitter.

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