Sequester threatens St. Louis -area college research funding

2013-03-25T00:15:00Z 2014-10-24T14:23:11Z Sequester threatens St. Louis -area college research fundingBy Tim Barker tbarker@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8350 stltoday.com

The region’s top research universities stand to lose tens of millions of dollars this year in federal grant money to the budget battle underway in Washington.

There are many unknowns, but schools such as Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are nervously watching and waiting to see how a handful of federal agencies handle sequestration — the automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect this month.

All they know now is that those agencies — including the National Institutes for Health and its massive $30.9 billion research pot — have to trim their budgets by 5 percent. Exactly how that’s going to happen is unclear.

“Information is coming out slowly,” said Evan Kharasch, Washington University’s vice chancellor for research.

The school gets the bulk — 77 percent — of its $620 million research funding through the federal government. Most of it comes from the NIH, though it also pulls in money from the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies.

But even though everyone knows how much the agencies must trim, there’s no easy way to know how those cuts will play out on a campus-by-campus basis, Kharasch said.

“It’s really not possible to simply do the arithmetic,” he said.

That’s because each of the agencies will get to decide how they go about balancing their budgets as part of this overall effort to cut $85 billion in federal spending.

The National Institutes of Health, for example, already has cut its current grants to 90 percent funding. And the agency may award fewer new grants this year.

Other agencies may decide to prioritize some research projects, meaning certain grants could be cut more severely than others.

And that’s making it difficult for schools such as the University of Illinois to make plans.

“Until you get rulings from the individual agencies, there’s not a whole lot that can be done,” said Randy Kangas, vice president for planning and budgeting for the three-campus system.

The system anticipates losing $40 million to $65 million this year, with up to $46 million of that coming from the Urbana-Champaign campus.

And with some jobs on campus tied directly to research grants, Kangas said it is likely that positions will be lost along the way.

The impact also will be felt by St. Louis University, which says it could lose $2 million to $4 million from its $40 million in federally funded research.

It is less clear what might happen at the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. A spokeswoman said there is too much uncertainty surrounding cuts at various agencies to provide an estimate of potential losses.

The school had a $230 million research budget in 2011, with large chunks coming from the NIH, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

And while most of the attention, nationally and here, is on this year’s funding, there also may be reasons to be concerned about the long-term impact of the nation’s budget battle.

Kharasch and others worry that research dollars could be lost permanently, reducing the pipeline of new medical breakthroughs, spin-off tech companies and skilled workers.

“There is a concern that the nation’s research enterprise could undergo a significant contraction,” he said.

FINANCIAL AID

In the earlier days of sequester talk, there was some fear that college financial aid departments could also be hurt. But for the moment, there appears to be minimal impact.

The widely used Pell Grant program is shielded from sequestration. But there will be small cuts in Federal Work Study, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and TEACH Grants.

But financial aid officials at both Mizzou and the University of Missouri-St. Louis described the impact as minor.

UMSL doesn’t expect the cuts to hit more than a couple dozen students.

Nick Prewett, Mizzou’s financial aid director, said students will find themselves paying $17 more in loan origination fees. But the school doesn’t expect any changes in its SEOG awards, while about 20 students may see their TEACH grants cut by 12.6 percent.

But more importantly, Prewett doesn’t see any reason to hit students, who are starting to receive award letters in the mail, with unexpected surprises this summer.

“The offers on the table, I wouldn’t expect us making any changes,” he said.

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