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University bracing for possible cuts in federal funding

By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
and Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 21, 2013

As federal research funding is on the line, the University is on high alert. If Congress doesn’t reach a deal to reduce the federal deficit before March 1, across-the-board cuts will be automatically be set in place — akin to the so-called fiscal cliff that was narrowly avoided at the end of 2012.

At the University’s Board of Regents’ meeting Thursday, Stephen Forrest, University vice president for research, said the University could experience a $40-million reduction. National research funding would be cut by $12 billion.

Forrest said that, regardless of the outcome of the cuts, or sequestration, the University is entering a period of flat or declining federal research funding. However, since University research placed first among public universities and second among all universities this past year, it may be able to leverage this clout at the federal level.

“They listen to us, so it’s up to us to help the federal government understand what the research opportunities and what the competitive opportunities are in the future,” Forrest said. “It has been innovation that has been the motor and the engine of the American economy since the Second World War.”

While federal funding has decreased over time, the University’s research budget rose to $1.27 billion this past year. The increase was due largely to the University's use of its own funds to replace federal funding — which decreased from $824 million to $795 million this past year. The University’s growing partnerships with private industry have helped offset the decrease in federal appropriations.

In an interview last Friday, University Provost Phil Hanlon said the University will work to improve research funding to alleviate the problem of reduced federal support.

“We certainly will work as hard as we possibly can to make the case for U of M research to be an ever-growing part of the federal pie,” Hanlon said. “That’s one way that we can react to the shrinking federal budget is to improve our percentage of funding that comes our way, and we will certainly do every effort to do that.”

In an October discussion concerning sequestration and the fiscal cliff, University President Mary Sue Coleman said it would be extremely difficult to make up widespread losses in federal research funding with private donations or industry support.

“It's hard for me to imagine that there won't be bipartisan support to prevent (a sequester)," Coleman said. “We'd be shooting ourselves in the foot at a time when all these other countries are pouring money into science.”

Forrest said although the outlook for federal research funding does not look strong, the University will continue to plan and he added that the University has maintained “solid growth” into 2013.

Looking forward, Forrest said he will focus on anticipating funding trends, increasing global engagement and seizing research investment opportunities.

Despite the possibility of future funding cuts, Forrest used the opportunity to highlight several upcoming research initiatives at the University.

The Michigan Mobility Transformation Initiative, also known as MiMo, funded by the largest grant to come out of the Department of Transportation, will wire almost 3,000 cars on an electronic track around the city of Ann Arbor. The experiment aims to reduce collisions and accidents in an urban environment and could serve as a model for transportation systems around the country.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to completely transform how people get around,” Forrest said. “This is one of the biggest things that we can see on the horizon. If we invest now, this (initiative) will become a major (project) across, we believe, the globe.”

John DeCicco, a School of Natural Resources and the Environment professor, is one of the collaborating faculty members on MiMo. Since much of the project is still in its early stages, DeCicco said the initiative’s brainstorming efforts have not been influenced by the threat of a looming sequester.

Even though much of the team’s current discussions have not revolved around funding, DeCicco is confident that political parties will recognize the importance of the field.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to be able to be able to make a compelling case to not only the federal government but the state government, industrial partners, and many other interested parties,” DeCicco said. “There’s a big opportunity here to bring multiple players together in a very positive way.”

DeCicco added that the project continues to generate excitement due to its implications for transportation safety and energy management, as well as for the generation of economic opportunities in the region.

“The context is not about how to make up federal funding shortfalls,” DeCicco said. “We’re more trying to come up with the great ideas. In my experience, there are always ups and downs on funding, and what carries the bag are good ideas and good people and that’s what we’ve been concentrating on.”

In addition to MiMo, Forrest said the University will fund social science research analyzing how American society adapts to an aging population in the 21st century. The collection of projects will involve a partnership between the social science faculties and companies in the Ann Arbor area.

In an interview after the meeting, Forrest said the project is an effort to integrate social scientists and other scientists to create a collaborative environment for producing research.

He added that the University intends to remain on the forefront of international research by collaborating with Universities across the globe, including institutions in China and Israel.

Concluding the presentation, Forrest said he hopes to use self-investment and diverse methods of funding to create long-term success.

“Our principal objective will always be and always remain to attract, retain and produce the talent and ideas that will drive the U.S. economy into the future,” Forrest said.

Daily News Editor Peter Shahin contributed to this report


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