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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.