Wash. U. faces new year without definitive plan to handle fiscal cliff: Cuts would cost WU millions in federal funding

| News Editor

Michael Tabb | Student Life

*Based on numbers from Washington University and the National Institute of Health from Fiscal Year 2012.

As the fiscal cliff looms over Capitol Hill, Chancellor Mark Wrighton and others have begun to worry that its detrimental effects may result in a significant loss of research funding at Washington University.

The immediate funding cuts executed on a national scale could impact funding for numerous University programs and initiatives including federal work-study and research funding, and the school has yet to develop a firm plan on what it would do should the U.S. government not act before Jan. 1.

“We have very major research funding from the federal government, and if sequestration occurs, …we would lose about 8 percent of our funding on an annualized basis,” Wrighton said. “That could be up to [$12.5 million] or more.”

Sequestration refers to the across-the-board, automatic spending cuts totaling about $200 billion that would be triggered around Jan. 1 by Congress failing to reach an agreement on the federal budget.

Wrighton recently sent a letter to U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, of Missouri, and Richard Durbin and Mark Kirk, of Illinois, expressing his concern about the consequences of a compromise not being reached in Congress by the beginning of 2013.

But while other schools like the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University have lobbied against sequestration—or the automatic spending reductions that will happen on Jan. 1, Washington University has not lobbied on the issue at all, according to opensecrets.org records that go back to 2006.

The loss of research funding would not only affect the University’s research in several fields of medicine, but may result in job losses as well.

“There are significant adverse effects for much of the University,” Wrighton said. “If the funding is reduced, we have to cut back scale of the projects. Depending on the projects and who is involved, it could mean that we would have layoffs of personnel.”

The issue was also discussed in Friday’s meeting of the University’s Board of Trustees.

“I want to make sure that our Board of Trustees knows that we have some major challenges if the fiscal cliff is not resolved,” Wrighton said. “[Our] very significant programs in cancer annulment and Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease…all of these areas [in which] we are heavily involved would be curtailed.”

Going over the fiscal cliff would significantly reduce funding from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which contributes substantially to research at the Washington University School of Medicine.

“There could be 8-17 percent cuts across the board of the discretionary part of the federal government. Those cuts would result in less funding to those agencies which provide research to Washington University,” Evan Kharasch, vice chancellor for research, said.

Larry Shapiro, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the Washington University School of Medicine, wrote an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on how cuts to the NIH would devastate the funding for research in the medical school.

“There were no specific proposals or plans as to how the University might deal with that because it is too preliminary at this time,” Kharasch said. “Washington University is very carefully monitoring what the federal government is doing. We are very aware, and we are communicating our best information to our University community including our faculty so they can have the most up-to-date information.

Wrighton pointed out that although the medical school would be hit hardest by the fiscal cliff, the effects would be felt by all facets of the University.

“The majority of our research funding goes to [the] School of Medicine. That’s about 85 percent of our research,” Wrighton said. “But it does affect Danforth campus as well in the sciences, engineering and social work.”

Some students voiced concern with the potential loss of funding due to the University’s strong reputation as a research school.

“If the funding for our research is threatened, I think the University should do everything they can to counteract that,” senior Connor Liu said. “I’m sure Wash. U. is not the only one in this situation, I’m sure universities across the nation are having similar threats to research. Keeping that in mind, universities should either on their own or together come up with a plan or at least have a voice in that debate.”

Liu stressed that the school’s research reputation attracts students from all over the globe.

“One of the big allures of Wash. U. is…the research opportunities that are available here, he said. “Taking away from research would take away some of the prestige and some of the things we value about Wash. U. most.”

Sophomore Claudia Garza noted that it may affect opportunities for students to work on research projects.

“I was involved in [pulmonary] research at the med school. [The potential funding loss] would be a loss of research opportunities for students,” she said.

Wrighton said that the potential decrease in investment would undoubtedly be harmful to the University.

“An investment in research has powerful positive effects down the road, and disruption in research is very difficult [because] we depend on a continuity of funding,” he said. “The sudden decline can be a major setback to important research programs.”