The University’s research community has begun to feel the effects of sequestration — the across-the-board cuts in federal discretionary spending that began last March — and is bracing for what the second round of cuts may mean.

Overall research spending for the University’s 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, increased by 4.3 percent to $1.33 billion. Federally sponsored research, which accounts for roughly 62 percent of overall funding, rose by 2.8 percent.

Those numbers, however, don’t completely reflect the 5.1-percent cuts from federal sequestration, since the federal and University fiscal years do not align. The sequester, which took place from March through the end of the federal fiscal year in September, won’t fully be reflected until the University’s 2014 fiscal year.

University President Mary Sue Coleman said last week that the sequester’s effects pose “a real danger.” Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, whose office oversees campus-wide research activity, shared this sentiment. Forrest said the awarding of grants was very competitive and selective to begin with, and the sequester “has made competition much more fierce.”

While Forrest acknowledged that research and innovation more broadly have suffered as a result of the sequester, capturing the extent of its effects right now is difficult, since the University’s research offices are decentralized and distributed across different offices and departments on campus.

The Medical School’s research expenditures topped $453 million in 2013, and school officials attribute 75 percent of those expenditures to federal sources. Heather Offhaus, director of the Grant Review and Analysis Office — an office within the Medical School Office of Research that reviews and analyzes the success of research proposals — said the sequester has already negatively affected the amount of grant money researchers receive from federal sources.

Most of the Medical School’s federal grant money comes from the National Institutes of Health, and a typical NIH project award lasts between three and five years. A project is considered “competitive” when initial funding is sought, and then is considered an existing project after its first year, when funding for the remaining three to four years is promised. According to Offhaus, NIH budget cuts have resulted in a 5.5-percent budget reduction for all existing projects, as well as a reduction in the awarding of competitive grants.

The effect is that NIH-funded researchers on existing projects will not receive as much money as they were once promised, and newer projects that might have been funded in years past may not get off the ground. According to the NIH website, more than 80 percent of its budget is allocated to researchers at more than 2,500 universities and research institutions nationwide. In the 2013 federal fiscal year, the NIH awarded an estimated 640 fewer competitive research grants compared to 2012.

“We’re not getting as much done in the shorter amount of time because there’s not as much funding to do it,” Offhaus said. “(The sequester) slows down the pace of science when you can’t get as much done.”

Both Offhaus and Forrest said they have heard from research investigators that have been forced to cut staff from their labs due to reductions in funding. While these layoffs are by no means widespread, they have posed a challenge for certain areas. Forrest also noted that a decline in research funding has widespread economic effects: Not only will hiring in labs be reduced, but there is also less money to purchase lab materials, supplies and equipment, and reduced purchasing could challenge local economic growth.

Forrest’s office has made a point not to cut back on the graduate student population and to protect graduate students and research faculty who rely on government money, but such efforts will be difficult to sustain should the sequester continue for several budget cycles.

Engineering Prof. Anna Stefanopoulou, the director of the Automotive Research Center, said the sequester has not only reduced the center’s funding, but also created a lot of uncertainty. She said the center, which is funded solely by the Department of Defense and focuses on modeling and simulating ground vehicle technology, may experience a talent drain with reduced funding.

“If we don’t know exactly what our funding is, we cannot compete and recruit our best students,” she said.

In anticipation of continued decline in federal funding brought on by the second round of sequestration, Forrest said his office has been concentrating on diversifying their research portfolio. Fiscal year 2013 saw a 14-percent growth in industry funding, chiefly coming from the health care, automotive and electronics industries. However, Forrest added that industry still comprises only 8 percent of research funding, and could not be relied upon to fill the gap left by the federal government.

“There is no real substitute — and there never has been — in this country for federal support in research,” Forrest said, noting that even industry funding relies on federal support. “Every significant advance in technology in the postwar era has had its origin in federal funding, from integrated circuits to the Internet.”

If anything, many in the research community say their options for scientific exploration are more constrained — a challenge for a university that prides itself on being one of the top research institutions in the nation.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like everything’s stopping and coming to a grinding halt,” Offhaus said. “You just don’t know what opportunities your missing, and we won’t know maybe for years and years that had we had a solution faster, (if) it would’ve been a good thing.”

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