Threat of Sequester Has Researchers and Aid Officers Scrambling - Government - The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 25, 2013
Scholars and Aid Officers Brace for Looming Budget Cuts
Matt McLoone for The ChronicleFrancis Collins (center, standing), director of the National Institutes of Health, discusses the potential impact of forced budget cuts on medical research with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland.
By Kelly Field
With only days remaining till steep federal spending cuts take effect, colleges and students are bracing for painful reductions in research, student-aid, and job-training programs. Some researchers say federal grant making has slowed already, as the science agencies prepare for tighter budgets.
Unless Congress acts to avert the cuts by March 1, the federal budget will be slashed by roughly 5 percent across the board through a process known as "sequestration." Thousands of researchers will lose their jobs, thousands of students will lose their financial aid, and thousands of unemployed workers will be turned away from college work-force programs.
"Sequestration is a reckless and blunt tool," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. "It would have severe, long-term impacts that would put our nation at an extreme disadvantage for years to come."
Recognizing the toll that across-the-board cuts could take on the still-fragile economy, President Obama has urged lawmakers to reach a deal to head off or at least postpone them. But lawmakers appear to have reached an impasse instead, with both sides more focused on assigning blame for the damage than on preventing it.
Calculating the precise impact of the cuts is tricky, since they would be applied to a fiscal 2013 budget that Congress hasn't passed yet, and since the agencies would have some discretion over how to distribute them. Still, the White House has warned that the reductions would force science agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to make hundreds, even thousands, fewer research awards, costing thousands of scientists and students their jobs.
Federal work-force-development programs, which have been cut by 30 percent since 2001, stand to lose $460-million more in the 2013 fiscal year if the cuts are applied evenly, according to the National Skills Coalition. That would prevent community colleges and other aid recipients from serving some two million workers and employers, according to the coalition.
Student aid would suffer as well. Though Pell Grants would be exempt from the sequester this year, Federal Work Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants would not. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has told lawmakers his department will make 33,000 fewer work-study awards and 71,000 fewer supplemental grants next year if the cuts take effect. College-preparatory programs, such as TRIO and Gear Up, would also take a hit.
Anticipating the cuts, colleges are budgeting conservatively, putting off hiring decisions, and warning students that their financial-aid awards may be reduced. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Pamela W. Fowler, executive director of financial aid, is holding back institutional aid to cover the work-study shortfall.
Poorer institutions, like Philander Smith College, in Arkansas, said they won't have the resources to make up the difference to students. David D. Page, the college's director of financial aid and vice president for enrollment management, expects parents to turn instead to PLUS loans—if they can. Like many historically black institutions, Philander Smith has seen a significant decrease in the number of applicants approved for the loans as the government has tightened its underwriting standards. This year only 39 families were approved, down from 151 the year before. That decline contributed to an enrollment drop that cost the tiny college $900,000 in revenue, Mr. Page said. "Cuts like that hurt not only students but the institution as well," he said.
Louise Esveld, director of pre-college programs at Central College, in Iowa, has prepared two budgets for her Upward Bound program—one assuming flat funds, the other based on sequestration. She's holding off on hiring faculty and mentors until she knows which budget she'll be working from.
If her budget is cut, one of the first items to go will be cultural experiences, such as trips to museums and the theater for low-income students who have never visited either.
Disruptions in Research
Meanwhile, researchers are reporting delays in the grant-making process, as federal agencies prepare for a new era of austerity. The University of California says it's received 25 percent fewer federal research dollars than it had at this time last year. At Boston University, Provost Jean Morrison said she has seen a slowdown in the issuing of requests for proposals, as well as lags in funds for new grants.
Such reductions and delays can "cause disruptions in the process that can't always be easily overcome," she said. "The research enterprise is not like a light switch that can be flipped on and off."
Tim Leshan, president of the Science Coalition, an association of research groups, said he's heard from some members who have received only half of their scheduled awards. Mr. Leshan said the delays had made it difficult for researchers to make hiring and purchasing decisions.
Francis S. Collins, the NIH's director, said the uncertainty is already scaring away young researchers. "If we lose the talent of this up-and-coming generation, with all their great ambitions, they're not coming back," he said last week.
Since October, when the 2013 fiscal year began without Congress approving a budget, the NIH has made 10-percent cuts in payments on grants approved in previous years. Now, with sequester pending, it's simply approving fewer grants, Dr. Collins said.
"We have been very reluctant to make the number of awards that we normally would at this time of year, because we don't know what we're going to have to work with," he said.
In a sign, perhaps, of how much scientists dread the projected cuts, research universities have joined forces with the defense industry to lobby against them. Colleges and defense contractors have long competed over federal dollars. Still, they have a common interest in preserving the Department of Defense's research-and-development budget, which could be slashed by $5.4-billion under sequestration, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"We're all feeling very threatened," said Hunter R. Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities. "The prospects are dire on both sides of the ledger."
Under sequestration, the pain would be spread evenly, with defense and nondefense spending each absorbing half of the more than $1-trillion in cuts scheduled for the next decade. The reductions were to start in January, but Congress postponed them until March 1. To pay for the delay, it reduced the caps on how much Congress can spend on defense and nondefense programs by $4-billion this fiscal year and $8-billion the next.
Those caps, coupled with other spending limits imposed by Congress, mean that colleges could face spending cuts even if lawmakers reach a last-minute deal to avert sequestration. Those cuts wouldn't be as indiscriminate as the sequester's, and lawmakers could choose to spare student aid and research the worst of the pain. Even so, colleges could be in limbo until at least the end of March, when a short-term spending bill for the 2013 fiscal year will expire, forcing lawmakers to act.