UC Berkeley to lose $49 million in research funding if sequester cuts take effect

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With less than 48 hours until the sequester spending cuts are set to take effect, UC Berkeley administrators are estimating that the campus could lose about $49 million in federal funding for research.

If Congress fails to reach a compromise on how to address the national deficit by Friday, the University of California’s prestigious research programs are expected to lose about 10 percent of their federal grants. Currently, the university receives about $3 billion in federal research funds.

The estimated $49 million in research fund reductions from the sequester — described by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as “next to a major war, economically the worst thing that could happen to this country” — will take place over the course of the upcoming year.

“It means less resources, less money to the lab and personally, it means I will not be taking a graduate student this year,” said professor John Huelsenbeck of the campus department of integrative biology. “It’s the training aspect that concerns me the most. When you don’t have money, you can’t train new researchers.”

Higher education officials across the nation are largely unsure of the specifics of the cuts.

“Education will be badly impacted,” said Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council, in a press conference. “Across-the-board cuts will affect the priorities that we should be investing in.”

Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, said that universities across the country will receive about a thousand fewer federal grants next year if a compromise is not reached.

Many federal agencies have cut back on granting research awards over the past fiscal year in anticipation of the reductions, Fleming said.

He added that the university does not have the funds to fully compensate for the millions in reductions.

“We will just have to do some temporary belt-tightening and hope we can get a more rational and sensible budget plan soon,” he said.

Furman said the cuts were never intended to actually be implemented but rather to serve as a mechanism for motivating Congress to reach a compromise.

Sequestration, approved as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, was initially scheduled to take effect in January of 2013. The legislation had increased the debt limit, cut $1 trillion in discretionary appropriations and formed a “super committee” in hope of identifying an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts to federal programs over the next seven years.

However, the committee failed to reach an agreement. Now, with the extended deadline provided by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 just days away, many officials are considering the cuts inevitable.

With little guidance on how to implement the trigger cuts, departments across the University of California have not been able to make definitive plans for the future.

“There is a significant level of uncertainty, and that makes it particularly difficult for researchers to think through their research opportunities,” said Chris Harrington, associate director at the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations. “Its not just about the cuts but also about the broader budgetary uncertainty as we look for the future.”

Fleming said he hopes that elected officials realize that the federal government plays an important role in supporting research and development, especially at a university like UC Berkeley. From 2001 to 2011, UC Berkeley graduate students were awarded more National Science Foundation grants than those at any other university in the nation.

About 56 percent of UC Berkeley’s research is funded by federal agencies, Fleming said. He added that the federal government is the only institution that can support research at the scale necessary for competitive innovation. Although private industry does play a role in funding research, it is less willing to invest in long-term projects.

“If we don’t have that support, we won’t have the innovation that has kept the U.S. economy as the leading economy for the last 50 years or so,” Fleming said.

Huelsenbeck said he is already noticing a change in the United States’ ability globally.

One colleague of his, he said, moved to China because of the nation’s increasing investment in science and advanced labs and its ability to fund large amounts of graduate students.

Meanwhile, the United States is cutting back research funds by the millions.

“I can’t imagine a future where across-the-board cuts, without any rhyme or reason, continue in a permanent matter,” Fleming said. “I think this would be temporary  — or, at least, I really hope so.”

Alex Berryhill covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @berryhill93.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UC Berkeley could receive about 1,000 fewer federal grants as a result of sequestration. In fact, sequestration could mean 1,000 fewer grants to universities nationwide.