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University research discovers hard truths of U.S. budget crisis

U.S. President Barack Obama nominates air quality expert Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, nuclear physicist Ernest
U.S. President Barack Obama nominates air quality expert Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, nuclear physicist Ernest

By Gabriel Debenedetti and Peter Rudegeair

(Reuters) - Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Carol Greider used to have eight to 10 young researchers working in her university laboratory, but with U.S. government funds for scientific research shrinking in recent years, she's gone down to four.

Sequestration, Washington's name for $85 billion in federal spending cuts this year, promises to cut even deeper into Greider's team at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She's decided she cannot afford to hire "a promising young researcher" she wanted to add to her staff for the next academic year.

"I'm not sure in the current climate we have for research funding that I would have received funding to be able to do the work that led to the Nobel Prize," Greider said at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) event last month, adding that her early work on enzymes and cell biology was well outside the mainstream. The NIH has been funding her research for the past 23 years.

Federally funded, university research has long been a major engine of scientific advancement, spurring innovations from cancer treatments to the seeds of technology companies like Google.

But now some of the largest U.S. research universities fear that spending cuts under sequestration could lead to layoffs, curtail scientific discovery and leave a generation with less access to careers in science, school officials said.

The across-the-board budget cuts, to be carried out by September 30, come on top of years of reductions in federal spending on research that have already had an impact on universities' scientific exploration, officials from eight top research universities told Reuters.

"These cuts threaten to undermine our ability to carry on the basic research that leads us to new frontiers of knowledge and boosts American competitiveness," Harvard University President Drew Faust told Reuters in a statement.

A report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a lobbying group, said sequestration would leave the United States $511 billion behind in research and development investment, compared with expected growth in spending on research in China.

CUTS, AND MORE CUTS

About three-fifths, or $40.8 billion, of all university research funding in Fiscal Year 2011 came from the federal government, according to a recent National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics survey. Money from states, localities, foundations, individuals, companies and other sources make up the rest of university research budgets.

Sequestration comes amid a backdrop of diminishing federal funding for university research. NIH appropriations in Fiscal Year 2012 were below those of 2003 when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis of NIH data by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Universities have already seen their funding reduced this year.

Mary Lidstrom, the Vice Provost for Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, said NIH began trimming grant funding research by about 10 percent across the board earlier in the academic year. The university received $609 million from NIH the previous fiscal year.

The restrictions are affecting graduate student admissions for the fall, with the school likely to accept fewer students, Lidstrom said. Further funding cuts could mean fewer paid internships for undergraduates.

Under sequestration, NIH will reduce its budget by $1.5 billion, or 5 percent, according to estimates from the Office of Management and Budget. The National Science Foundation (NSF) stands to lose $290 million.

That could disrupt ongoing projects with multi-year grants, head off future scientific breakthroughs and lower the number of graduates admitted to research programs, school officials said.

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Vice President of Research Steve Forrest said a 5 percent cut would mean a loss of $40 million for the school. A Yale University spokesman said the school stood to lose $28 million.

"There (are) going to be a lot of research jobs at risk. That will hit young researchers disproportionately hard," said Forrest, adding that the effects are long-term and hard to recover from since researchers are unlikely to return because of "the extremely competitive environment across the globe."

FUTURE CONSEQUENCES FOR DISCOVERY

Universities get federal research grants through a competitive, project-specific application process, with the money funding everything from lab materials to technicians to graduate students. Grants can be as small as a few thousand dollars for projects lasting a few months to as much as tens of millions of dollars for work lasting a decade or more.

For example, in fiscal year 2011, University of Michigan received $10.9 million from NIH to study aging and University of Wisconsin received $13.6 million for primate research.

With less federal funding, universities will have to find money from other sources or scale back projects. Forrest warned of a scenario in which universities would have to use their reserve funds to finance programs as long as they can to see ongoing experiments through to completion. "Then eventually we'll have to start cutting workforce," he said.

Underpinning the staffing worries is a broader concern about scientific progress: cuts could mean the loss of research or the researcher with the ability to do the work.

NIH has said sequestration means it will likely reduce funding for existing grants and it expects to make fewer new awards in fiscal year 2013, beginning this fall. NSF said it will absorb the cuts by awarding approximately 1,000 fewer grants in fiscal year 2013, though it will not cut existing standard grants. Exactly which grants might suffer is unclear.

(Reporting by Peter Rudegeair and Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Jennifer Merritt, Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz)

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