Research on the chopping block as UVA faces sequestration

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A student works in UVA chemistry Professor John Bushweller’s lab, one of many that could see major cuts in federal grant funding due to sequestration. Photo: Christian Hommel A student works in UVA chemistry Professor John Bushweller’s lab, one of many that could see major cuts in federal grant funding due to sequestration. Photo: Christian Hommel

The University of Virginia expects to lose up to $12 million in research funding in 2013 and could see significant financial aid reductions in the coming years due to sequestration, the massive package of federal spending cuts that went into effect March 1.

As the University braces for the effects of the sequester, originally intended as a trigger so undesirable it would force legislators to come to an agreement about a more suitable way to control spending, UVA’s medical research centers and Federal Work-Study program have emerged as early casualties.

“This is about not only the school and discovery,” said Jeffrey Blank, UVA’s assistant vice president for research. “It’s about jobs, local jobs here in Charlottesville. This has an impact on people’s lives.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have blamed each other for railroading a strategic plan to cut spending. But wherever the blame lies for the stalemate, the sequester will amount to a loss of $85 billion in federal aid, with 9.4 percent of the defense budget slashed and the non-defense discretionary budget suffering by 8.2 percent. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts up to 750,000 Americans could lose their jobs due to the reductions. Other economists say that number could be higher.

“The across-the-board cuts required through sequestration are stupid on steroids,” said Senator Mark Warner. “And while much of the discussion has focused on the impact on our military and national defense, the impacts are significant for our world class research universities like UVA.”

Medical research stands to be the hardest hit at the University. Of its $300 million overall research budget, roughly $200 million is federal money. About $23 million of that came from the National Science Foundation last year; the National Institutes of Health granted $129 million. Since all federal research funding will be cut at least 5 percent and up to 7 percent, the bottom-line loss for the University is expected to be $10-12 million, according to Blank.

Blank said NSF plans to maintain funding for its current grants but significantly reduce new grants going forward. NIH, which has already been operating at a 10 percent reduction, has left it up to its individual institutes to decide how to make the additional cuts. Blank said NIH will decrease the amount of funding granted, the number of new proposals funded, and the length of existing grants. He said UVA has encouraged faculty members to talk to their funding manager about their individual research projects.

“The sequester is just right on top of cuts we have already experienced,” Blank said. “Not to the best of my recollection has it ever all piled on like this.”

The UVA Cancer Center reports it will take a 10 percent, $100,000 cut in its federal funding in the first six months of the year, according to the center’s director, Dr. Michael Weber. The center receives $2 million annually from NIH, and Weber said the reduction to $900,000 for the first six months of the year will limit the effectiveness of ongoing and developing research. What’s more, NIH has deferred its decision on the following six months, which hamstrings the center in hiring decisions and puts the brakes on pilot programs that drive innovation.

“As a nation, have we decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the fight against cancer?” Weber asked.

While the details of the sequestered research funds have become increasingly clear, many decisions about financial aid cuts have been delayed to ensure spring aid will not be affected. The University’s Federal Work-Study allocation from the U.S. Department of Education (a small portion of the aid UVA offers) is expected to decline by $92,000 in the 2013-14 school year. Pell Grants are exempt for the current school year but could be eligible for cuts in later years. The Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, which could be cut at other universities, is not expected to be touched at UVA.

“There is not a hard and fast timeline to any of this,” said UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance.

To offset the sequestration reductions to work-study aid, which is earned through employment on or off Grounds and based on financial need, the University has indicated it will consider reducing the number of students in the program. UVA did not disclose the number of individuals losing aid due to the $92,000 funding cut in 2013-2014 but indicates award amounts range from $1,000 to $4,000 for undergrads and up to $3,500 for graduate students.

Deferring financial aid cuts could ease the burden, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, because Congress could still find a way to overturn the sequester. McCance said UVA will not cover the losses in the meantime.

“While every dollar of aid is important, the anticipated cut in work-study is only about 0.1 percent of the total federal, state and University funds UVA provides in financial aid,” he said.

On the research side, Blank said the University’s primary means of counteracting the cuts are bridge funding and aid diversification. Each department has a certain amount of administrative funds it can allocate to selected research projects to maintain its momentum, or bridge the gap, until federal aid returns or the funding can be secured through other means. Funding can be diversified through state allocations, private company investments, or philanthropic donations.

Still, despite UVA’s best efforts, some of the 3,400 individuals employed in a research or research support capacity at the University will lose their jobs in the wake of sequestration. And some of the damage won’t be easy to fix, Weber said.

“Over the past 10 years, we have been putting less into medical research than ever before,” he said. “People are bailing out. Labs are shutting down. Once the teams start to fall apart and people take other jobs, it takes a long time to build them back up. It is not an activity you can turn on and off like a faucet.”—Shea Gibbs

  • gimmemore

    We only got 180,000,000 dollars of free money from the feds. Well that is just horrible. How dare they not give us more money. I guess we will just have to build another building while we lick our wounds and brace for impact. How ridiculous.

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