National sequestration to impact UA research funding
The UA is bracing itself for further cuts to research funding, as the U.S. is set to enter sequestration Friday.
The UA is supported by competitive grants from agencies that will be affected by sequestration, according to President Ann Weaver Hart. Last year, federal funding for research at the UA totaled $331 million. The impact the sequester could have on research is a major concern.
The U.S. is grappling with more than $16 trillion in debt, and the sequester — a series of automatic cuts to government agencies across the board, totaling about $1.2 trillion over 10 years — has been coming for more than a year.
“We are already getting some of our annual grants renewed for only six months,” Hart said. “Agencies are cautiously already beginning to take steps because they don’t know for sure what kind of cuts they’re going to have to make.”
Principal investigators are getting six-month renewals instead of one-year renewals, which could affect staff who are paid exclusively on the soft money that comes from research and graduate students who rely on external funding for their research stipends and tuition, Hart said.
The UA is already down about 12 percent in external funding for grants from this time last year, according to Hart. The sequestration translates to a significant dollar loss — as much as $48 million for fiscal year 2013 in the worst-case scenario, Hart added.
“For graduate students who are self-supporting on their fellowships and tuition waivers, this is their livelihood while they pursue their advanced studies,” Hart said. “It will be incumbent on us to find ways to make sure those students have a way to complete their studies.”
Some graduate students agreed that problems could result from a lack of federal grants in science and engineering fields.
“There are a lot of great research grants, so I’ve had the opportunity to work under a lot of really talented [people] who are well funded, and that’s important,” said Alandra Kahl, an environmental engineering graduate student. “We are primarily research-based, so if they cut that source of funding, it’s really a huge deal to us. If there’s no money, there’s really no research.”
There are also concerns about how to attract new graduate and undergraduate students if the UA loses funding.
“We are an institution that prides ourselves on being able to bring students into our research activities from day one,” said Leslie Tolbert, senior vice president for research. “If students don’t find it as easy to participate in that kind of activity, we fear that we won’t get some of the best students we get right now.”
Ed Hendel, a physics senior, toured some of the labs in the UA physics department during his senior year of high school. Hendel decided to come to the UA to study in the biophysics lab run by
Koen Visscher and has been working with him ever since.
Hendel also spent the summer of 2012 working in a biophysics lab in the Netherlands through the UA undergraduate biology research program Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open.
“I’ve learned a lot and had a great time doing these research projects,” Hendel said in an email interview, “and I think it’s great that the U of A has interesting research opportunities for undergrads.”
Cuts to funding could leave students without the opportunity to participate in these types of projects.
Funding agencies have been holding back funds in anticipation of the sequestration and the agencies are just now putting out guidelines on how they will administer the cuts, Tolbert said.
“We still don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, but what we’re learning is that they [agencies] want to have a minimal impact on the current grants,” Tolbert said. “The huge impact will be on renewing those grants or getting new grants.”
Projected cuts for the National Institutes of Health are about 5 percent, which could significantly impact critical work to discover the causes of disease, Tolbert said. There would also be an impact if a grant loses funding that could result in the loss of staff.
“What we really worry about is losing people from these highly technically knowledgeable teams that work in all of these areas that we get federal funds to work in,” Tolbert said.
The government is still on a continuing resolution until March 27, which means funding won’t actually change until after that date, Tolbert said.
“There’s still a little bit of time for Congress to decide that there are smarter ways to cut the budget than to do an across-the-board cut,” Tolbert added. “We still have some hope that even as sequestration kicks in this Friday, there’s still a couple of weeks for Congress to act.”