This post first appeared in The Nation.
According to a new survey released Monday, 81 percent of responding universities said that sequestration, the automatic federal budget cuts, have directly affected their research activities. More than half of universities said a decrease in new federal grant opportunities and the shrinking value of existing grants, has prompted them to reduce research-related positions and nearly a quarter of the institutions said they have laid off research employees as a result of the cuts.
“The survey shows that sequestration is already eroding America’s research capabilities at universities across the country,” the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and The Science Coalition announced in a written statement.UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has been criticized in the past by student activists for doling out lavish salaries for high-profile hires amid tuition hikes, budget cuts and recession, but on Monday he stated that a $50 million loss to the university’s research funding could lead to a brain drain, top researchers leaving in a mass exodus.
Dr. Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists talks about the "war on science."
“The buffer is much thinner,” said Block. “So if faculty members lose their grants, if grants don’t get re-funded because of sequestration, there is a limited amount we can do to keep labs running. So if you ask what is the long-term effect? …Literally labs close and people end up on the street. That’s the danger.”
The negative effects of sequester are already on display in Ohio. Dr. Stan Gerson, director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, spent much of the past year calling members of Congress in hopes they would repeal cuts to research programs. Gerson told public radio WCPN, “It’s real jobs and real people” at stake.
Case, like Michigan, receives some of the biggest federal grants in the US for research.
Of the roughly $400 million Case spends on research annually, about 80 percent comes from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Case’s cancer center offers an example of how sequestration funding is slowly squeezing the budget. This summer, news came that the center’s five-year operational grant fell by $6 million.
“It’s undoubtedly the case over an 18-month period that there will be a smaller workforce in our school and our university. Just because, where else are the dollars going to come from?” Gerson says.
While Case isn’t planning layoffs yet, they are more selectively filling positions and faculty members are being encouraged to consider flexible hours. Gerson also told WCPN that labs on campus aren’t hiring as many graduate students.
Others also expressed concern that cuts in research would result in the loss of a competitive edge against other countries that prioritize education and research.
“We lose our competitiveness with foreign countries, especially China and India, which are investing very heavily in research and development,” said Philip DiStefano, chancellor at University of Colorado Boulder. “The longer that sequestration goes on, the more chances are that we are going to lose our competitive edge that we have had with foreign countries.”
The world of academia has objected to harsh austerity measures for a long time. In March, Science Works for US collected video editorials from professors and administrators, who argued that the then-proposed cuts would threaten American research and innovation. An op-ed in the Financial Times from before the sequester stated that, “fully 75 percent of postwar growth is tied to technological innovation, according to the commerce department.”
But these concerns fell on deaf ears, even though budget cuts will have a ripple effect for multiple generations, stripping opportunities from burgeoning students, researchers and scientists.
“There is a clear and present danger that sequestration will damage America’s pre-eminence in scientific research and higher education over the long-term,” said Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun. “Given the impact we already have seen, we urge the members of the House and Senate who are negotiating funding for fiscal year 2014 and beyond to end sequestration, enable investments in scientific research and higher education and restore the dividends these investments produce for our economy and society.”