Sequestration woes hit University research funds

The University is preparing for possible cuts to federal funding.

Sequestration woes hit University research funds

Brian Arola

A trillion dollars in across-the-board federal budget cuts set to start on March 1 could cost the state and the University of Minnesota millions of dollars in funding and thousands of jobs.

While Republicans call the effects overblown, the White House has said education, defense, small businesses, research and other areas would be hit hard by the cuts, which are known collectively as the sequester. The University could face millions of dollars in cuts to research grants.

University Vice President for Research Brian Herman said in an email to full-time faculty that the University is preparing the best it can since “information is scarce” on how federal research funding agencies will respond to the cuts.

Len Biernat, a law professor at Hamline University and a former DFL state representative, said the looming budget cuts are the latest example of politicians playing the blame game rather than working together for a solution.

“This is a crazy way to operate,” he said, adding that he thinks there’s no chance Congress will find a resolution before March 1.

President Barack Obama isn’t meeting with Senate and House leaders until Friday, when the automatic budget cuts will have already begun.

Research woes

Although most federal funding agencies have been quiet on their plans for the cuts, the National Institutes of Health announced it would reduce current grants by 10 percent. The National Science Foundation said it would fund 1,000 fewer grants.

Herman said in his email to faculty that the agency responses will likely vary, so the University can’t make specific plans or recommendations until after March 1.

“You can be reassured by the fact that the University’s financial position is strong,” he said, “and that university and collegiate leadership will do everything possible to mitigate the immediate and short-term impact of the sequester.”

Medicinal chemistry professor Courtney Aldrich said he’s not worried about the cuts because funding agencies have been cutting budgets for years.

The problem, he said, could be for new researchers who are looking to get grants for the first time. In 2012, researchers seeking grants from the NIH had a 20 percent success rate, but Aldrich said this figure is lower for disciplines like his.

“At that point, you cannot distinguish great from good science, so it becomes a luck of the draw,” he said.

Doug Mashek, a food science and nutrition professor, said he knows colleagues at the University and around the country who have received high scores on recent grant applications, but they don’t know if they’ll be good enough for funding.

Since he doesn’t know what will happen for existing or proposed grants, Mashek said he hasn’t started preparing for the looming cuts yet.

Herman advised researchers to make sure their budgets are balanced, to stay in contact with everyone in their lab groups and to determine where money could be saved if University research grants are cut by 5.1 percent.

Aldrich said he thinks the cuts could hurt the University’s nearly $750 million research enterprise as a whole, but he’s adapted his research group’s spending to the gradual agency-level budget cuts over the years.

Mashek said he’ll try to save money where he can and might have to look to other funding sources, like private industry.

It’s easier for more applied disciplines like computer science or pharmaceuticals to obtain industry funding, Aldrich said, because the companies don’t have to spend as much money for a final product. But basic research relies heavily on government money, he said.

 Microbiology department head Ashley Haase,  whose research on infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS is partly funded by the NIH, said it’ll be months before people know if their funding will be affected.

“It’s pretty unpredictable right now because the institutes will scramble to keep as much funding as possible out there,” he said.

Regardless of whether Haase’s research is affected, the White House is estimating sequester cuts will fund 7,400 fewer patients’ access to HIV medications and 424,000 fewer HIV tests.

The worst hit will be young scientists, Mashek said, because they won’t want to pursue a discipline where their work can’t get funded. The White House predicts as many as 12,000 scientists and students could be affected by the cuts.

“I’m just worried that we’re going to scare a lot of people out of science,” Mashek said.

University effects

Child psychology senior Laura McCreary works as an aide for a girl who has autism, but her job could be one of the 7,200 special education teacher and aide jobs the White House predicts could be “at risk” without a deal.

Minnesota could also lose some funding for services to victims of domestic violence, but the University’s Aurora Center would not be affected since its funding largely comes from student services fees.

Though cuts could be made to public health funds, Boynton Health Service won’t be affected because it’s funded by student services fees and insurance.

Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at Boynton, said people who use Medicaid or Medicare could be affected, but those people make up a “very small” percentage of Boynton’s patients.

“I’m not foreseeing that [the cuts will] have any effect on Boynton itself,” he said.

The University’s work-study program could face cuts as well. The White House estimates around 500 fewer students in Minnesota will get work-study jobs if the sequester takes place.

University undergraduate students received $6.2 million in work-study funds in 2012, according to Office of Institutional Research data.

But University spokesman Matt Hodson said no cuts will happen until next fall at the earliest. Hodson said student aid programs, which include work study, are already funded for this academic year, so jobs are safe through the summer.

“Until the fall,” he said, “we really won’t know the full extent of how many of these positions may be lost and how we might be able to go forward.”

‘Compromise has become a bad word’

Biernat, the Hamline law professor, said compromises have become hard to come by as political parties have become more polarized in the past 20 years.

“They’re not in the middle anymore,” he said.

McCreary said she’s frustrated Congress keeps brokering last-minute deals without finding long-term solutions.

Biernat said the same deadlock between the parties could come up again in about a month when budget resolutions are due.

The consequences of the cuts, McCreary said, will be far-reaching, both financially and culturally.

“I think a lot of people will lose confidence in the American political system,” she said, “… because we can’t get anything done.”

Haase said representatives are supposed to govern, so he hopes they can find a remedy that’s thoughtful and intelligent.

It’s sad to see everything that could be cut, Mashek said, because of Congress’ “finger-pointing.”

McCreary said members of Congress are blaming each other for cuts that haven’t even happened yet.

“I’m really frustrated,” she said. “I’m frustrated with the deadlock, that compromise has become a bad word, frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.”