SOUTH BEND -- Professors at research institutions across the country are wondering which of their projects will be reduced in scope or eliminated as a result of the mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which took effect March 1.
Some already have gotten word that grants they sought won’t be funded because of the federal cuts.
Sequestration “isn’t like a cliff. It’s going to happen relatively slowly over a two- or three-year period,” said Robert Bernhard, Notre Dame’s vice president for research.
Notre Dame's research expenditures from external sources in fiscal year 2012 were about $104 million, with $83 million coming from federal dollars.
The university’s research spending from external sources for fiscal year 2013 (which ended June 30) isn’t available yet. “But it’s going to be down,” Bernhard said, probably to around $100 million.
In addition, Notre Dame spends about $40 million of its own money a year on research. That figure likely will decline, too, he said.
A big disappointment concerned a $46 million federal grant request led by Notre Dame researchers for a nuclear astrophysics experiment facility in South Dakota. The project was canceled because of lack of funding as a consequence of sequestration. (See related story.)
“That was a huge blow. That would have been a big breakthrough for the university to go to another level,” Bernhard said.
The grant funding process works like this: Researchers submit proposals and requests for funding, which are reviewed by a panel of peers and assigned scores. The various federal agencies, based on their approved budgets, award grants to the top projects.
With sequestration, there is less money for grants, so fewer proposals are being funded.
The National Institutes of Health must make $1.6 billion in cuts on grant applications this fiscal year. The agency estimates about 700 fewer competitive research projects will be funded this year. The NIH’s budget peaked in 2003, and other than a brief boost from federal stimulus funds in 2009, it has been on a fairly steady downward slope ever since.
At the National Science Foundation, an appropriation from Congress boosted the agency’s budget, but the sequester still has forced the cutting of up to 600 grants. The NSF’s funding level of $6.88 billion for fiscal year 2013 represents a decrease of 2.1 percent from last year, according to the agency.
Notre Dame is diversifying its grant seeking, filing funding requests with more private foundations.
Although federal grants help pay for staff in research laboratories, Bernhard doesn’t expect significant employee cuts at Notre Dame because of sequestration.
“Most of our (research) manpower is in the form of graduate students and post-docs. If we don’t get a grant, we don’t hire as many people,” he said.
Sequestration is just part of the problem when it comes to funding research, said Dr. Rudolph Navari, an oncologist and director of IU School of Medicine-South Bend. “Funding for science and medical research has been flat, and that’s been going on for a number of years.”
With the sequester, the effect is now even more pronounced.
The result is that well-established, experienced researchers will continue to get research funding, but it’s becoming more difficult for younger, up-and-coming researchers to get grants approved, he said.