As the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, David Hemenway is often cited as one of the nation’s leading researchers on guns and public health. But when he gives talks, he has to make his own PowerPoint presentations, rather than rely on a paid research assistant. He’s also responsible for running the research center’s website, not out of a love for web design, but because his operation lacks the funding to hire outside help. Like most gun research institutes in America, the Injury Control Research Center is seriously underfunded. The lack of money isn’t just a headache for gun researchers — it also seriously limits what the public knows about the roughly 300 million guns in the United States.

“I always say that public health is incredibly underfunded, especially compared to medicine,” Hemenway tells The Trace. “Within public health, injury and violence research is underfunded, and within injury and violence research, firearms are incredibly underfunded.”

Hemenway couldn’t give exact figures for the annual funding the Injury Control Research Center receives, but other metrics indicate that it falls short of what other programs within the Harvard School of Public Health take in. The obesity research program, for example, has 18 full-time staff members: two co-directors and 16 affiliated faculty members. The Injury Control Research Center musters four full-time staff members. One of them, co-director Matthew Miller, also serves as a professor at Northeastern University, in part, Hemenway says, because it provides him with a more stable salary.

“We’ve really shrunk over the years,” Hemenway says. “There was a period when we were flush, when we were focusing less on guns and we had a lot of people helping. But as soon as the focus became guns, it became harder to get the money.”

The lack of funding for gun research is well-documented. In the mid-’90s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began exploratory gun research to documented the risks associated with having a gun in the home. After several studies backed by CDC money were published in prestigious medical journals, the gun lobby made the argument that federal dollars were going to support gun control. The resulting political pressure culminated in the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which has effectively forbidden the CDC from funding research on guns. “After that, the CDC was afraid to even say the word ‘firearms’ for 20 years,” Hemenway says.

For Hemenway and his colleagues, a scarcity of federal grants is a huge issue: Harvard’s School of Public Health is a “soft-money school,” which means faculty are largely tasked with supplementing their incomes with outside grants. One-third of Hemenway’s salary is paid by Harvard for teaching and administrative work, but he’s expected to raise the rest himself, plus any additional funding he might need for research. If losing CDC funding hurt, the loss of potential NIH support in 2012 really left them feeling the squeeze.

“The funding environment has gotten worse in all areas, but in the gun area, it’s always been horrible,” Hemenway says. “We’ve never gotten to the point where we’ve had to stop entirely, but we’ve gotten close. I’ve thought If something good doesn’t happen within a year, what in the world are we going to do?

“You can’t have a career doing gun research. I care about my students, so I specifically tell them, ‘Don’t do this.’ It’s an incredible sacrifice.”

There are very few research groups in the U.S. that focus almost full-time on gun research, and Harvard’s isn’t alone in scrounging for funding. At the University of California, Davis, Dr. Garen Wintemute donated more than $1 million out-of-pocket after his Violence Prevention Research Program lost federal grants. For now, Hemenway relies on funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Bohnett Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, which collectively support the Injury Control Research Center’s four staff members and their research. Harvard supplies some financial staff members to help manage the budget, but beyond that, the small team is on its own. A lack of full-time assistants might not sound like a hardship to those in many other fields, but for the team’s veteran academics, it means taking time away from their research to juggle administrative tasks — not just PowerPoint-making and website-updating, but also literature reviews and grant applications.

The studies that gun researchers have been able to afford have uncovered important facts. According to Hemenway, data yielded by the small field shows decisively that more guns and laxer gun laws lead to more incidences of violence, and that guns in the home are a significant risk factor for suicide. But when it comes to the specifics of many of these broader issues, researchers aren’t able to give conclusive answers. Which gun laws in the United States are most effective? Probably background checks, Hemenway says, but we don’t know for sure. Guns in the home are a risk factor for certain groups of people, but is it true across the board?

“We’ve written over a hundred journal articles,” says Hemenway. “But given the size of the problem, it’s peanuts. We have problems with gun accidents, we have problems with suicide and guns, we have problems with gang violence and guns, intimate partner violence and guns, mass shootings and guns. And they all have different aspects to them. We have to understand what the problem is, how to approach the problem, and do our approaches work. And we just don’t know anything.”

“There’s so many things we’d like to do,” he adds. “Just pick a topic, and we’d like to know more about it, from things like open carry to gun training to gun storage to gun theft to straw purchasers.”

Earlier this year, Hemenway and his colleagues conducted a landmark survey on gun ownership in America. They’ve had to release the results gradually in several published and upcoming journal articles, partly to increase their odds of catching a grant-maker’s eye. In the meantime, the future of firearms research remains in flux. Hemenway says that experienced researchers are reluctant to tell graduate students to focus on guns, knowing the limitations of the field.

“You can’t have a career doing gun research” says Hemenway. “I care about my students, so I specifically tell them, ‘Don’t do this.’ It’s an incredible sacrifice.”

[Photo: Flickr user Peter Gerdes]