While benighted lawmakers of both parties bicker, research at institutions that depend on federal funding suffers. (Credit: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons.)
Last March’s across-the-board, automatic federal budget cuts, popularly known as sequestration, reduced fiscal year 2013 funding for many federal agencies that bankroll materials-related research. October’s 16-day federal government shutdown further disrupted operations, and uncertainty remains following another uneasy political truce that ended the shutdown but only funded the federal government through mid-January.
Thus another shutdown—and another disruption in research funding and operations—remains a very real possibility. According to a Los Angeles Times report, Congressional negotiators working to avert another shutdown are running into the same ideological logjams regarding overall government funding levels that caused the problem in the first place.
Both sequestration and the shutdown also impacted research efforts at many universities that depend on federal funding, according to a Science magazine article that reports results of a survey (summary; pdf) of more than 170 research universities sponsored by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and The Science Coalition. The survey asked respondents about the early effects of sequestration, which began in March.
More than 80% of respondents reported that sequestration had a negative impact on university research programs. “We have already experienced significant reductions in expenditures in two categories: temporary staff and equipment purchases,” one respondent from a public university says in the summary. “As our research enterprise adjusts to the decline in federal support we expect to see other categories of employees and expenses affected in a similar way.”
According to survey results, 70% of respondents said the sequester caused research projects to be delayed. A similar number of respondents said their universities were awarded fewer new research grants. “The widespread delays and reductions in research activities reported by the survey respondents have immediate, real costs for researchers and students as well as long-term financial and opportunity costs for the nation’s research enterprise,” the survey summary says. Sequestration also resulted in position reductions or layoffs at 58% of responding institutions.
More difficult to quantify but still significant is the impact of budget cuts on researcher morale and productivity. “These factors [diminished funding] contribute to low morale for our research community, particularly among graduate students and junior faculty who are questioning career choices,” says one respondent from a private university. “Some graduate students have dropped out of programs this year or are considering leaving in favor of consulting, startups, and other non-academic careers.”
According to the survey summary, “Sequestration is also part of larger budget constraints and uncertainties at both the federal and state levels—all of which have cumulative, negative effects on new and current research and innovation as well as on the dissemination and application of the results to benefit society and spur economic development.”
Meanwhile, research at the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, which are run by universities and private contractors, is also impacted not only by sequestration but by the uncertainty caused by the recent government shutdown and the possibility of another closure early in 2014. One scientist at a DOE facility, who wished to remain anonymous, said recently that lab managers had been able to anticipate and plan for reduced funding levels, and even were prepared to weather a relatively brief government shutdown.
“Even if [the shutdown] had continued, we had money carried over from [FY] 2013,” the researcher said in an interview. “And, between now and January we will be receiving funding for 2014. But the situation is very stressful. You cannot make any plans, because you just don’t know what funding levels there will be, or even if there will be any.”