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Sequestration takes toll on research, education

As Congress and the Obama administration try to reach agreement on a spending plan for 2014, University of California leaders are urging that the repeal of sequestration be a top budget priority.

In a letter to California's congressional delegation signed by President Janet Napolitano and chancellors from all 10 campuses, UC leaders describe the economic and human toll from the indiscriminate federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

"Promising science is being delayed or terminated. Labs are being forced to lay off highly trained staff," they write. "Perhaps most troubling, young researchers are questioning whether to pursue research careers because vital fellowships are threatened and it is taking increasingly longer for them to obtain their first independent research grants."

Clock ticking on federal budget deal

Sequestration, a mechanism for across-the-board federal budget cuts, took effect in March and mandates $1.2 trillion in spending reductions over the next nine years. Federal agencies have cut $85 billion since March and the next round of cuts, totaling $109 billion, will be enacted in January unless Congress acts to repeal or modify the law.

With the clock ticking, UC leaders and a broad coalition of universities, economists, scientists and others are urging Congress to recognize that much of the nation's economic growth stems from federal investment in education and scientific research.

"Sequestration threatens our nation's educational, research and economic competitiveness at a time when many countries, including China, Singapore and Korea, are making significant investments," the letter to Congress says.

Federally funded scientific research created the foundation for a whole range of U.S. businesses and industries — everything from vaccines, lasers and MRIs to the Internet — accounting for more than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II, according to economic analyses.

Student financial aid at risk

For the University of California, the impact of federal cuts goes beyond research: More than 72 percent of UC students receive some form of federal aid, and 42 percent of undergraduates are low-income Pell Grant recipients — a higher percentage than at any other private or public research university in the nation.

The Department of Education already has made some sequester-related cuts to financial aid programs for low-income students. It also has cut support for UC's teacher training programs.

Pell Grants have been spared so far but remain vulnerable — a factor that makes it difficult for families to anticipate college costs, Napolitano and other UC leaders said.

"As students and their families make important decisions about higher education, they need to know that there is strong and sustained financial aid from year to year to help finance the costs of college," they write in their letter.

UC's five medical centers also are at risk, as they rely on federal Medicare and Medi-Cal reimbursements for patient care, and receive some federal funding to assist with the cost of graduate medical education.

Federal research awards in decline

UC researchers already are feeling the pinch, as budgets for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other major sources of research funding shrink. UC received nearly $3 billion in federal research support in fiscal year 2011–12, accounting for more than 65 percent of its total research funding.

The university's preliminary data, which do not yet reflect the final quarter of the 2012–13 fiscal year, show that federal research awards are down by $345 million, or roughly 12 percent, compared with 2011–12. That reflects the trends reported by other research institutions across the country.

Scientists and researchers at UC locations across California are reporting a range of funding-related problems from the federal cuts. Not only has it become harder to secure new grants, but previously approved funds have been reduced or eliminated, causing rollbacks to research projects that already are underway.

At UC San Francisco, for example, more than 50 researchers have reported funding difficulties.

Allan Balmain, a UCSF researcher studying the role played by genes in susceptibility to invasive cancers, said that students and postdoctoral fellows are the ones being most hurt by sequestration.

"They witness the struggles that even highly successful labs are going through just to keep research programs alive, and this is discouraging them from trying to build careers in basic research," Balmain said. "We are in danger of losing a complete generation of young researchers due to the lack of foresight in Washington."

Researchers report similar impacts across the university system. At UC Merced, an NIH grant related to children's health was cut by 17 percent due to sequestration. As a result, the scope of the research has been scaled down, a postdoctoral fellow was let go and there now are fewer training and mentoring opportunities for students.

UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, meanwhile, lost $5 million after learning that a proposed center for ocean observations and modeling would not be funded, despite initial approval from an NSF Blue Ribbon panel.

The ripple effect to California's economy

Those kinds of impacts are likely to have a ripple effect that reverberates across California.

UC is the state's third largest employer, and its research, teaching, health care and other activities produce $46.3 billion in annual economic activity.

"UC is educating the workforce, advancing scientific breakthroughs in research, providing world-class medical training and generating economic growth through new jobs, start up companies and spinoff industries," UC leaders said in their letter to Congress.

"It is critical that our nation maintain its investments in education, scientific research and health care to ensure California and our nation's economic prosperity continues to grow."