UC reckons with $370 million in cuts from federal sequester

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The federal sequester — the mandate that slashed billions of dollars from crucial federal programs — was never supposed to happen.

President Barack Obama and others hoped the threat of sequestration alone would be devastating enough to force compromise among the divided Republicans and Democrats in Congress who seemed unable to agree on a federal budget .

But to the dismay of many Americans, including many researchers and administrators at the University of California, who watched nervously as members of Congress continued bickering in the days leading up to the Nov. 23, 2011, deadline, the sequester became reality.

“The sequester was really supposed to be this impalpable situation to force an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at UC Santa Cruz who is one of thousands of researchers within the University of California who have felt the political squabbling’s effects.

The data paint one portrait of the aftermath: Due to the sequester, the UC system experienced a $370 million drop in federal research funding, according to the UC Office of the President.

At UC Berkeley, where Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Patrick Schlesinger said federal dollars have dwindled by about 16 percent — or $62.4 million — since the sequester, cuts have translated into research project limitations, staffing losses and a slow-brewing crumbling of research infrastructure.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a budget that alleviates much of the sequester’s across-the-board cuts for next year. Although many call the new budget a “step in the right direction,” researchers at UC Berkeley — hardened by lingering damages — remain wary.

“Sequesters are now unfortunately a fact of life,” said campus professor of psychology Robert Levenson. “This is the environment we live in; its not an earthquake that’s going to happen once every 20 years. We’re in a rainy season, and it’s going to be with us for a while.”

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One portrait

In 2011, facing a multitrillion-dollar deficit, the government established the Budget Control Act, which directed a “super committee” to either come to a deal to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget or deal with a sequester.

The cuts, which indiscriminately slashed programs across the board by about 7 percent, went into effect March 1.

According to UCOP, in 2012 the UC system received $3.1 billion from federal programs, such the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. The NIH, which has in previous years awarded the university about $2 billion in research grants, saw its funding cut by $1.6 billion this year.

“The problem with sequestration and with cutting across the board is nobody is protected,” said Gary Falle, UC associate vice president of federal government relations. “Cancer research is cut the same as solar research.”

Although the new federal budget provides $63 billion in sequester relief over the next two years, the House Budget Committee admits that “despite our best efforts,” it could not reach an agreement on the long-term deficit. Consequently, sequestration-level cuts are scheduled to resume in 2016.

The tail wagging the dog

This year’s round of cuts has already reverberated across the UC system

According to Schlesinger, in addition to a drop in the number of grants awarded, UC Berkeley researchers have applied for fewer grants — under such grim chances of success, researchers feel discouraged from even trying.

“The lottery has terrible odds, yet people play it all the time because it requires almost no effort,” he said. “But if to play you had to work for a month writing this paper — and then turn it in to have a shot in a million to get funding — I don’t think people would play.”

Levenson, who works in neuroscience and psychophysiology, explained that when researchers submit grants, the government grades their proposals on a curve, and the A’s are the ones that get funded. Historically, in his area of research, about 85 percent of grants receive awards. But this year, only the top 3 percent were successful, he said.

Levenson said that because grants are funded based on the priorities of each federal institution, there are underlying motivations behind what kind of work is funded. Additionally, lobbyists and drug companies put pressure on elected officials, which creates a “cherry-picking” system that may direct scientists into these incentivized fields.

“The tail wags the dog,” Levenson said. ”There’s so much political pressure. Some of the science in this country is unfortunately driven by the dollar rather than the scientist’s judgment on what the most important questions are.”

An implicit consequence of this systemwide “push” is that the funding climate may drive researchers to abandon their “scientific heart” and pursue fields of science to which they are not intrinsically drawn, said psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw.

Another brand of uncertainties and stress upon researches arises from the “stop-and-go funding” nature of the budget cuts, resulting in unpredictable terminations and indefinite delays in grant funding.

In fact, Marcia Smith, associate vice chancellor for research at UCLA, said some confirmed grants were never paid while others were delayed, modified to reduce funding or terminated early.

Hinshaw, who is studying ADHD in girls as they mature, said that because of the sequester, his study was delayed by an entire school year. He said these uncertainties cause researchers to miss staffing opportunities and lose study participants.

Even with these external influences, many researchers attest that even the most popular or profitable areas of research are not necessarily the most advantageous or medically promising.

“If you look at the history of biology, a lot of the most groundbreaking things came from some of the most unexpected sources,” said Sweeney, who is also president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, a union of postdoctoral researchers at the UC system and University of Washington. For example, he said, green fluorescent proteins, which are today ubiquitous in almost every biological field, were serendipitously discovered by people studying jellyfish.

Nobel laureate and UC Berkeley biology professor Randy Schekman — whose research on how cells organize their internal transport systems led to the production of one-third of the world’s supply of insulin — is today a vocal advocate for basic science and condemns the pressures that so often permeate his field.

“What’s particularly bad is, there’s too much of a push to study something ‘practical’ — you can’t just study what goes wrong in the cell; you have to cure a disease,” Schekman said. “But it’s at least as important to have a deep understanding of how things go bad on the molecular level rather than just going after the disease with a hammer.”

Last month, UAW 5810 and several members of Congress sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urging Congress to repeal the sequester by emphasizing the global and economic benefits of investing in basic science.

“The federal government depends on the UC to get them basic research, be it in cancer or clean coal, because private sectors are not doing this kind of work,” Falle said.

Sweeney’s lab is trying to investigate how stem cells can be used to restore vision in people with glaucoma, a disease that causes the adult retinal ganglion cells, responsible for light detection, to die off. In tracking glaucoma, one obstacle that must be overcome is the lack of “molecular markers” that distinguish between these RGC types.

But because Sweeney’s lab has seen a 16 percent cut, he does not have the resources to investigate all of the candidate genes that could serve as these markers, leaving “several questions unanswered.”

A slower pace of discovery

According to Jeffrey Bokor, associate dean for research at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, these delays are also “significant obstructions” for researchers looking to take on graduate students in their labs. As applications begin to come in, researchers remain uncertain as to whether they will have the funds to accept them, Bokor said.

“By the time you hear you’re going to get the money, your grad students have given up and left,” Levenson said. “When you have graduate students who work with you for a long time, you feel like you have this extended family that’s depending  on you to be the breadwinner. It’s heartbreaking when people lose their jobs because you can’t get grants.”

Additionally, these precarious budget situations and vast instabilities have begun to echo in faculty losses in an increasingly prevalent case of “brain drain,” in which critical minds are lost overseas or to private institutions.

Bokor, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says he knows of many researchers who are contemplating making the move to China, Japan or Europe, where basic research is funded in a more robust manner.

“If a key employee leaves to go work with Google, you can’t get him back — all of the expertise they have is lost, and it’s irrevocable,” Levenson said.“Human resources are incredibly important to research: If you lose staff who go on to greener pastures, it slows the pace of discovery in ways you never imagined.”

As brain drain progresses, many researchers and politicians alike fear the United States will begin to “lose basic ground” as a global leader in science and innovation. While Congress’ new budget has slowed sequestration for now, cuts still looms large on the horizon.

Levenson said the campus must develop an insurance plan to weather the damages to come.

“We no longer can pretend that these cuts are the exception,” he said.

Virgie Hoban is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected]