Universities lobby to stop sequester

March 16, 2013

University officials across the country and their lobbying arms in Washington are mobilizing to send a message to Congress: Stop the sequester.

They are, of course, not alone. Many interest groups are irate about automatic spending cuts that took effect this month, chopping indiscriminately across the federal government.

The Association of American Universities, which represents 60 public and private research institutions in the United States, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which has 218 members, as well as a group called the Science Coalition, have set up a Web site to make the case for shielding about $30 billion a year in federal research funding for universities. They are also writing letters, testifying before Congress and doing whatever else they can to make noise.

“Sequestration will do much damage” this year, APLU President Peter McPherson told a House subcommittee Wednesday. In coming years, he said, “the sequester will cut even deeper, harming our ability to maintain our role as the world’s leading innovator and severely impacting the ability of Congress to fund the important education and research programs that grow our economy and reduce our deficit.”

What is striking about this effort is that few lawmakers argue against federal support for university research, although funding levels certainly differ among various budget proposals. It is accepted wisdom that research begets innovation, which begets economic growth. Republican Mitt Romney said as much in last year’s presidential campaign. President Obama has said it often since taking office.

It’s worth noting that university officials fear the sequester will whack certain student aid programs, including work-study and supplemental educational opportunity grant programs. Tuition assistance for military personnel also faces cuts.

But the scramble now is to sort out what the sequester means for huge research funding streams from an alphabet soup of agencies — the NIH, ONR, NSF and DOE, to name just a few — that flow to campuses from coast to coast. (Translation: the National Institutes of Health, Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.) This turmoil is the subject of an article published in Sunday’s Washington Post.

The depth of federal research funding’s connection to university finances is profound. William Shute, a vice chancellor of the University of Texas system, said the system spends about $2.4 billion a year on research, of which $1.65 billion comes from Washington.

For Johns Hopkins University, which runs the Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, federal research support totals $1.9 billion a year, according to a recent NSF tally. That is the largest amount for any university in the country.

Officials at other research universities also warned about the effects of the budget sequester.

“Regardless of the outcomes, there will be fewer awards,” wrote Suman Singha, senior vice provost and vice president for research at the University of Connecticut. “And this is going to negatively impact U.S. research competitiveness especially as the global competiveness is increasing and other countries are investing more in basic research. This will be especially difficult for junior faculty who are just in the process of establishing their research programs, and it will be hard to undo the damage if these individuals are unable to secure research grants because of the lack of funds.”

Steven Lerman, provost of George Washington University, said a decline in research dollars will deliver, in essence, a double blow. Not only do universities rely on federal grants for research but federal funding also defrays overhead expenses associated with that research, sometimes called indirect costs.

“Those indirect dollars are often supporting everything from the heat in a research lab to staff to monitor the grants,” Lerman said.

Lerman said federal research spending in the past half-century has spawned a hugely successful academic enterprise nationwide, spinning off countless ideas for basic science and commercial applications.

“Investments in research drive innovation, new ideas, new products and eventually lead to very large economic development,” he said. “The American economy’s strength historically has been that it has been able to innovate. That’s why we’re more productive.”

Colorado State University’s vice president for research, Bill Farland, assessed the cuts this way: “Essentially, we’re eating our seed corn.”

Like others, Farland said he fears that some young scientists will turn away from academic careers when the failure rate for grant applications goes up.

“At some point, it’s going to have a chilling effect,” Farland said.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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