Government sequester limits University research opportunities

| Staff Reporter

Eight months after the federal government’s sequester went into effect, Washington University is still feeling the effects of budget cuts to research funding.

With allocations to national research agencies slashed by significant portions, the University has lost millions of dollars in research capital, primarily from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation—two agencies that sponsor many projects schoolwide.

In previous years, Washington University has received in excess of $350 million from the NIH, but the institute has had its budget slashed by 5.5 percent due to the sequester.

Combined with cuts to other agencies such as the NSF—which has seen a 3.4 percent cut in funding—this decrease means the University’s overall research federal funding has fallen about 11 percent, Vice Chancellor for Research Evan Kharasch said. The University saw a 9 percent decrease in its research allocations from all sources, he added.

While the University did not have a specific plan in place to soften the blow of the allocation losses, Vice Chancellor of Finance Barbara Feiner said the most basic recourse involves lowering expenses.

“This usually includes reductions in payroll, which can mean fewer staff,” she told Student Life. “Sometimes schools or departments within schools can ‘bridge’ funding for research from other sources.”

Senior Katie Jacobs, who works in a lab in the biology department, said her boss’ funding issues in the past couple months has led to a staff deficit.

“My boss in particular is having trouble right now because he is in-between grants,” Jacobs said. “One of his grants stopped in September and another didn’t start again until November, so our post-doc just left the lab, and [my boss] hasn’t been able to hire anyone new until his new grant starts.”

“In order to do research, you need a lot of money,” she added. “And if you want to hire people to work in your lab, you do it off of your grants you get from specific proposals.”

The sequester, which went into effect March 1 after Congress was unable to come to a budget agreement, comprises a set of automatic spending cuts for the years 2013-21 that predominantly affect discretionary spending. It was set up as a fallback so damaging that it would strongly encourage Congress to settle on a suitable budget.

But an agreement wasn’t reached, and the prescribed spending cuts went into effect. This measure has particular significance for research universities across the country, which derive a bulk of their budgets from federally funded agencies.

According to an NIH report, the agency’s budget cut meant that it issued approximately 700 fewer competitive grants for 2013 than it had in recent years. But administrators said the way grants are allocated makes it hard to gauge the exact impact of sequestration.

“It is obviously impossible to know how many of the competitively awarded grants would come to Washington University if sequestration was not in place,” Jason Van Wey, director of federal relations for the University, told Student Life. “A tangible impact of less funding is a lower overall success rate for researchers seeking federal funds.”

While he was unable to provide specifics of how the University’s researchers fared in receiving funding, Kharasch noted that the cuts were comprehensive and spanned both the School of Medicine and other University divisions.

Despite the losses, some students said research projects they have personally been working on continued seemingly unaffected.

“My lab might have been affected in some capacity, but I personally didn’t see any changes,” junior Amrita Hari-Raj, who worked in a radiology lab over the summer, said.

With additional reporting by Sahil Patel and Becky Prager.

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