As sequestration nears, possible effects at MU becoming clearer

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 | 3:23 p.m. CST; updated 4:44 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 26, 2013

COLUMBIA — This week, Kristofferson Culmer flies to Washington, D.C., to make his case against sequestration.

A fancier word for budget cuts, sequestration is an automatic, across-the-board reduction to federal spending. Culmer, an MU doctoral student in computer science, is president of MU's Graduate Professional Council, whose members would be acutely affected by the cuts.

Culmer plans to meet with the staffs of Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt and others. His key message: Federal funding for research helps graduate students, who, in turn, become professionals in various industries and help local, state and national economies.

Rob Duncan, MU vice chancellor for research, is already in Washington making a similar case. Cutting federally supported research "turns off our ability to recover (economically) in the first place," Duncan said.

In round two of the sequestration standoff, a clearer picture has emerged of what might happen to MU research that receives federal dollars and which MU researchers might be most affected.

At the same time, uncertainty still permeates all discussions.

"Everyone’s apprehensive," said Sam Kiger, associate dean for research at the MU College of Engineering. "The agencies don’t know what the situation will be yet. There's this cloud hanging over us."

MU research concerns

In January, Congress "kicked the can down the road" when it reached a deal on the fiscal cliff and postponed sequestration for three months, Duncan said.

The cuts, which begin Friday if no deal is reached, could reduce MU’s federal research grants and contracts by $16 million this year, MU spokesperson Christian Basi said.

In 2011, MU received about $176 million in research support from federal agencies such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Duncan said.

So far, Duncan said, no federal agency has contacted an MU researcher to cancel or modify one of MU’s 3,400 research contracts and grants.

The MU College of Engineering has major contracts with the Department of Defense, among other agencies, Kiger said. The department funds research on nano-explosives and sensors to detect explosives at airport screenings.

In total, the Defense Department contributed $14.2 million to MU in 2011, according to a University of Missouri System report.

Duncan said he’s noticed slow response times from federal agencies as the cuts near.

He said no-cost extensions, which provide researchers with more time to spend unused money after their contract period ends, have been harder to get approved. He has also observed a delay in the time it takes an agency to decide on a new research award.

Duncan speculated that plans for new research grants and contracts would be the first thing shelved if sequestration hit, followed by a reduction in existing programs.

If it were to go into effect, sequestration would split evenly between defense and domestic discretionary spending. The measure would cut $85 billion from the federal budget by September and cut a total of $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the White House Office of Budget and Management.

The government awards MU researchers about 1,500 new grants and contracts a year, Duncan said. Most grants have a three-year lifetime, or performance period.

"If they turned all new funding off now, then in three years, there would be no contracts and grants to speak of," Duncan said.

MU researchers affected

The potential $16 million in cuts account for about 10 percent of MU’s federal research budget. Duncan said the cuts would likely hit students with graduate assistantships and those pursuing postdoctoral research.

"Federal grant money pays the salaries of our most junior colleagues," he said. "We could have some tough decisions to make."

Dennis Lubahn, a researcher and professor in the MU Biochemistry Department, said a 5 percent cut from his grant would hurt; a 10 percent cut, he said, would likely force layoffs.

"I’m not sure what to tell you," Lubahn said in an email. "We have gotten no details."

The potential effect on graduate students is taking Culmer to Washington with other members of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. Culmer plans to speak with Blunt's staff. At a news conference at MU last week, Blunt said he expected sequestration to go through.

"The only way to change sequestration, in my opinion, is for President Obama to propose other spending cuts or to accept other spending cuts," Blunt said.

Uncertainty reigns 

Ultimately, Duncan said MU researchers and their federal funding agencies are both in the dark on the true effect the potential cuts would have.

"It all depends on the agency," he said. "If we could prepare an Excel budget sheet for exactly what money will be turned off, we’d be planning for those eventualities right now."

The National Institutes of Health was MU’s largest contributor in 2011, funding $56.4 million that year, according to the UM System report.

NIH spokeswoman Amanda Fine said the agency does not have specifics on exactly how it will implement the cuts.

The NIH released a guide to grantee institutions on Friday that warned it would  likely reduce funding for noncompeting continuation grants this year and make fewer awards available should the budget cuts occur. 

Financial aid prospects

Federal funds that are tagged for cuts also contributes to MU student financial aid.

Because aid is already awarded for the educational year 2012-13, the federal budget cuts won't affect student aid programs until the 2013-14 year, Nick Prewett, MU director of student financial aid, said.

The financial aid office receives a pool of money from the federal government each year, Prewett said, and uses the money to allocate financial aid and work-study jobs based on results from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, that measure the student population’s financial need.

For fiscal year 2014, Prewett said he expects a $247,000 cut in federal funding for student financial aid and work study, or roughly 17 percent.

"We haven’t determined where we’ll cut yet," he said. "We could limit the total number of awards or lower existing award amounts. The financial aid budget fluctuates every year."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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