We are on the cusp of something that might very well revolutionize the research world. But, no, it’s not a cure for cancer, an innovative approach to string theory or a comprehensive economic theory. Instead, it’s a proposed multi-billion dollar federal budget cut to research funding institutions that will directly impact universities.
These cuts — due to take effect Dec. 31, impacting such research funding entities as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health — could have serious implications for research innovations. Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Northeastern University, Tufts University and University of Massachusetts, in conjunction with various Boston hospitals and medical centers, voiced this concern to Congress in a letter earlier this month.
“The effects of this drastic ‘reset’ of research support may drive a generation of young talent to other fields as they seek to establish reliable career paths,” they wrote.
Massachusetts institutions are expected to take a $3.1 billion hit over the course of the five-year sequestration caused by cuts. If these cuts take effect, these institutions are concerned that private entities will also refuse to fund research.
Mory Gharib, the vice provost for the California Institute of Technology, recalls that similar cuts were made in the 1980s. In fact, they were more major.
But what makes these 8% cuts more drastic is that they’ll have an effect “across the board,” he said.
“The notion of uncertainty is more damaging than the cuts themselves,” said Gharib, who is also Caltech’s Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Bioinspired Engineering.
At Caltech, he said, these cuts will be especially acute because the school is small in size and takes part in niche areas of research. Most recently, members of Caltech manage Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which put the Curiosity rover on Mars. Gharib expressed concerns that the same kind of innovation might be threatened if the cuts take place.
Jillian Minahan, a 21-year-old senior at Fordham University from New Providence, N.J., hasn’t encountered budget issues yet. The university has subsidized her psychology research.
But she is aware that research funds don’t roll over to the next year. The school only gets a certain amount of funds to work with each cycle.
Caltech does part of its research planning every year. Planning — for example, hiring researchers, such as post-docs, and putting in orders for new equipment — is already frozen. But since the school can’t plan ahead and can’t be sure which programs and projects will suffer the most cuts, it needs to be cautious.
Rachel Wold, a 19-year-old University of Michigan sophomore from Lowell, Md., has already observed issues at her school.
“My professor has been having a hard time getting funding and grants,” she said. She is currently a volunteer researcher on her professor’s project because her professor can’t afford to offer a salary.
Her professor has also been unable to expand and hire a large staff due to lack of funds.
Although Wold doesn’t know if this specific situation can be attributed to the impending budget cuts, she said she worries about her professor’s research.
“She’s been trying to start her own lab. It’ll be harder for her,” Wold said.
“The cuts will limit innovations and job creation,” Gharib said. “We won’t get new treatments, new devices or a better understanding of diseases. Eventually we’ll pay the price.”
“Our hope is that we reach a compromise so we survive this fiscal cliff and don’t sustain long-term damage to [our] educational system,” he added.
And according to the letter to Congress, “Support for federal research funding helps to ensure our nation’s health, prosperity, and international competitiveness.”
But even besides having national consequences, these cuts will impact individual lives.
“Maybe I’ve just been fortunate,” Minahan said. But the cuts “may not be helpful when I’m going to graduate school and need grants.
As for Dean Wilhelmi, a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania junior from Towson, Md., researching is not just a way to earn money.
“I enjoy doing research,” he said. “I would be concerned [if these cuts take place].”
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