WASHINGTON – They are the "superstars of the superstars," as one Harvard official put it. For decades, the university's most distinguished researchers simply had to focus on producing great science. Backed by the Harvard imprimatur, they had no trouble winning millions of dollars in government grants to conduct their work.
Now, with federal research funding flat-lining, even the best in their fields have to court new sources of support. Following their peers at other universities that have already felt the pinch, Harvard scientists are increasingly appealing to corporations and wealthy philanthropists.
Harvard is setting up meetings between its star researchers and big donors, as the academics pursue money that is not nearly as reliable as the government's once-steady support. The scientists have no choice. Many of their federal grants have run out and are no longer being renewed or are being cut midyear.
Among those affected is one of the world's top drug-making chemists, an internationally acclaimed physicist, and a US Army major and biomedical engineer conducting cutting-edge nanotechnology research.
"The professors are starting to panic a bit," said Richard D. McCullough, Harvard's vice provost for research, who was hired two years ago to expand the university's research support beyond the federal government. "Literally, the biggest names in their field are coming to me saying, 'What can you do?' We're chasing after money we never had to chase before."
Harvard has more than tripled its corporate research funding since 2006, to $41 million a year in 2013, and foundation support has increased by nearly 50 percent to $115 million a year, according to university data.
Much of Harvard's research funding, more than 75 percent, still comes from the federal government.
Last month, McCullough said he sought a meeting with the Fidelity Foundation, a charitable arm of Boston-based Fidelity Investments, to patch together funding for a professor whose National Institutes of Health grant had just run out. Fidelity-affiliated foundations fund a variety of programs, including research at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital.
Among other groups supporting university researchers: Microsoft; pharmaceutical companies such as Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline; BASF, a German chemical company; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
Seasoned scientists say they are spending more than a quarter to nearly all their time applying for research grants, writing many more proposals than they had in the past for far less money. Research groups are being chopped by 25 percent or more, as postdoctoral fellows are let go.
"I've gotten to the point now that running my research group is making me less and less of a scientist; I'm a hustler," said Kit Parker, a bioengineering and applied physics professor who studies brain injury, tissue engineering, and microdevices.
Parker said one of his key federal grants was cut by 25 percent in the final phase of his research into using human stem cells to build 3D models of organs. Another grant for understanding the effects of biological and chemical weapons is at risk of being cut completely, he said.
Andrew Myers, a Harvard organic chemist whose lab is one of the few in the world to develop fully synthetic routes to antibiotics, said after spending months doing nothing but writing grants, his last three proposals were rejected by the National Institutes of Health.
"In the old days, you'd write a grant to the NIH or the National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense, and they would say, 'This is good science,' and it would be funded and things worked very smoothly," Myers said.
Now, "it's been so grim I don't even bother to write them anymore," he said. "It just hangs over your head like a black cloud, this threat that next year when the money runs out you could have to shut your lab down."
In response, university officials are connecting star professors with Harvard's top benefactors, bringing scientists on the road to speak at alumni clubs around the country, as well as arranging meetings with donors in Cambridge.
On a Saturday afternoon during commencement in 2013, Myers and more than half a dozen other scientists gave talks about their work to a group of elite donors and walked them around their labs.
"I said I was just about out of money and I don't know what I'm going to do," Myers recalled. Donor Alastair Mactaggart, a San Francisco real estate developer, followed Myers back to his office and expressed interest in supporting his research into antibiotics, eventually giving him more than $200,000. "That's what's kept us going," Myers said.
Mactaggart, in an interview, said he normally does not fund individual professors' research, but said, "It just felt like an opportunity to make a difference in something that affects so many people's lives."
McCullough said Harvard is a bit behind its peers in pursuing industry support for research, which makes up close to 5 percent of the university's research funding, compared to about 16 percent at MIT and 8 percent at Stanford. Schools focused on engineering typically have higher rates of industry-sponsored research, he said.
Eric Mazur, one of the world's top physicists who has taught at Harvard for 30 years, said he used to only write one grant to win federal funding in the 1980s. Now he submits five to 10 proposals for his research into nanophotonics and considers himself lucky if he gets one.
Just recently, after struggling for nearly a year, he received three grants worth $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force. But 18 months before, it was "disastrous,'' Mazur said. "It's very depressing. It rubs off on the next generation of scientists who are thinking they are not going into research because funding is a nightmare."