But the federal budget sequester that took effect this month — requiring cuts of about 5 percent in nondefense programs and more than 7 percent in defense — is likely to shrink research spending by more than $1 billion. Advocates warn that the cuts could hamper exploration in biomedical science, among other disciplines, and undercut efforts to ensure U.S. leadership in science and engineering.
The cuts will make it tougher for academics to win a grant. The National Science Foundation said it expects to make 1,000 fewer grants this year than the 11,000 it typically makes.
Almost immediately, it became tougher for students to enter doctoral programs in science and engineering. Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, which receives about $450 million a year in federal research funding, is admitting fewer graduate students this year because of the fiscal uncertainty.
“We are concerned that we don’t see more of a cooperative spirit in Washington,” said Dennis Hall, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for research. “It’s a little scary.”
Universities are urging Congress
to stop the sequester, contending that it jeopardizes an engine of discovery and innovation that drives economic growth.
“To put it kindly, this is an irrational approach to deficit reduction,” Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, told a Senate committee Feb. 26. “To put it not so kindly, it is just plain stupid.”
Some lawmakers are seeking to soften the blow to research in a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.
Others say that a dose of fiscal austerity will help ensure that research funds aren’t wasted. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday sent the NSF a letter questioning several grants, including $325,000 to San Diego State University researchers who are using a robotic squirrel to study interactions between squirrels and rattlesnakes.
“Every dollar spent on projects such as these could have instead supported research to design a next-generation robotic limb to treat injured war heroes or a life-saving hurricane detection system,” Coburn wrote.
He added that “all federal agencies including NSF should continue to find ways to do more with less.”
For decades, federal funding of university research has received bipartisan support. There was no debate on that point during last year’s presidential race.
In his education platform, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said: “[W]e must not lose sight of those policies that are working. The long-term federal investment in basic research within institutions of higher learning has been a crucial engine for innovation in our economy, and one that could not be replicated through other sources of funding.” The government, he said, should “maintain a strong commitment to research in the physical, biological and social sciences.”