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Obama budget proposal prioritizes research, education

| Senior News Editor

President Barack Obama’s federal budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year shows that the president has heard the outcry of research institutions like Washington University suffering cutbacks from sequestration.

But in the day since its announcement, the budget has already garnered opposition from both political parties.

The budget proposed by the Obama administration Wednesday would marginally increase funding to scientific research institutions such as the National Institute of Health while providing additional money to the Department of Education and other departments that offer financial support to the University.

In practical terms, a presidential budget proposal is a signal of an administration’s priorities and is a starting point for Congress to begin working on a budget that will probably be passed in the fall.

The proposed budget would increase the maximum value of Pell Grants from $5,645 to $5,785 per year. It would allocate $31.3 billion to the NIH, a 1.5 percent increase, and $7.6 billion to the National Science Foundation, an 8.4 percent increase.

But the proposal has met criticism from both Republicans and Democrats because it would cut significant government expenses—including Medicare costs tagged as wasteful or fraudulent—while simultaneously limiting tax breaks and raising the income tax for millionaires.

The proposal is causing particular unrest in light of the sequester that resulted in across-the-board federal budget cuts beginning March 1. Normally, the president proposes a budget in February so Congress can deliberate over the legislation before it gets implemented on Oct. 1.

While Pamela Lokken, vice chancellor for government and community relations, stressed that the president’s proposal is effectively a suggestion to initiate months of dialogue over the federal budget, she said it is an important way for the president to communicate how much he values scientific research and higher education.

“We should all be paying attention to whether those items are high enough priorities,” Lokken said.

She added that the overall discussion will take a long time and that the ultimate budget may look entirely different from the one proposed by the president Wednesday.

“The president’s budget is just one very tiny piece of all of this,” Lokken said. “Not much can be said right now…it is unfolding in front of us.”

Jason Van Wey, the University’s director of federal relations, is currently in Washington, D.C., to relate information about the proposal back to St. Louis. He was unable to provide comment on the record Wednesday.

While Lokken said her office was still figuring out exactly how the proposed budget would affect the University, a number of advocacy groups the University belongs to have voiced approval of Obama’s budget proposal.

Washington University’s Siteman Cancer Center was a partnering institution for Monday’s Rally for Medical Research at Carnegie Library in the nation’s capital, which USA Today reported brought together several thousand people from around the country.

The march was intended to bring national attention to the importance of NIH funding. The NIH, which provided Washington University $381 million in research funding in the 2012 fiscal year, lost almost 5 percent of its budget under sequestration.

Administrators said the University has yet to see exactly how the $1.4 billion in NIH cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year will affect grants. The amount of federal revenue the University will be seeing over the remainder of this fiscal year remains unclear, according to a number of administrators.

In a newsletter dated April 3, Evan Kharasch, vice chancellor for research, noted that the effects of sequestration on the University are difficult to specify. The sequester was only in effect for a few months before Congress passed a continuing resolution to generally maintain the last budget it passed, which was for the 2012 fiscal year. But those months of cutbacks—in addition to spending limits Congress placed on the continuing resolution—add up to major decreases in allocations.

Kharasch said Obama’s budget proposal is promising and generally favorable to research institutions like Washington University, which receives 77 percent of its research funding from the federal government. He said that they are still, however, working to see how the current year’s cutbacks affect them.

“The University’s fiscal year does not close until the end of June. We continue to receive research support throughout the year, and there is month-to-month variability in the receipt of research dollars,” Kharasch wrote in an email to Student Life. “Therefore it is not yet possible to state how the University’s research funding for FY13 will compare with FY12.”

The difficulty parsing the numbers is nationwide, administrators said.

“No research institution in America has a clear sense of what the potential funding cuts are going to look like,” Rob Wild, assistant vice chancellor, said. “Our connection is directly through the funding agencies…it’s not like the federal government writes us one big check.”

Although the University itself has not taken a position on Obama’s budget proposal, it belongs to a number of advocacy groups that released statements approving of it Wednesday.

United for Medical Research, a coalition of institutions that advocates for the NIH, supported the proposed budget.

“The President’s NIH budget proposal is an important step forward in restoring the crippling $1.6 billion cut the agency received as a result of the sequester,” the coalition wrote in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Administration and Congress in making this increase in NIH funding a reality.”

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, to which Washington University also belongs, said the nonprofit group supported the priorities of the president’s budget proposal but did not remark on any specifics of the legislation.

“The President’s budget offers hope that the nation will continue to make science and education investments a top national priority while taking serious steps to reduce budget deficits,” Rawlings wrote in the group’s press release.

At the moment, Lokken said the main question is whether the federal government will be able to pass a budget by the end of the current fiscal year. If it does not finalize a budget by Sept. 30, it also has the option to vote to extend the current budget until an agreement can be reached.

“If there is a question, it’s if they can get all this work done in a much shorter time span than normal,” Lokken said. “It’s been quite a number of years since sequestration has occurred [before], but it makes the process more complex.”