Karen Hitchcock: The Impact of Sequestration On Our Nation's Research Enterprise

Feb 28, 2013

As the clock ticks down to yet another financial crisis, experts across the nation are weighing in on the consequences facing a myriad of critical government programs  --  from defense to cancer research to student financial aid to public health to homeland security.  Come tomorrow, March 1st, short a last minute agreement, some $85 billion in across-the-board cuts from sequestration will take effect, albeit, over a number of months and, in some cases, years.  Such cuts represent annual reductions of approximately 5% for non-defense spending and 8% in defense expenditures.

The sheer magnitude of the envisioned cuts would have major consequences for such programs as Head Start, air traffic safety, immunizations, food inspections, and on and on.   However, the impact of these cuts on the nation’s research and development programs would be especially dire. For example, as recently reported in the Times Union, New York State’s colleges and universities would lose some $110 million in this year’s budget alone, much of that coming from critical research and development programs  --  programs which are finding new ways to fight disease, to protect the environment, and to advance the technology which is critical to our state’s and nation’s competitiveness.

Much of my own career has been spent as a research scientist, examining ways to ensure the health and viability of the newborn.   I can say from personal experience that the kinds of cuts envisioned in the area of health-related research will have not only immediate effects, but long-term consequences which will be extremely difficult to overcome. Research programs require large numbers of extremely well-trained personnel if they are to be successful in advancing knowledge and obtaining the resources required to be competitive. The loss of research funding which would result from such across-the-board-cuts would shut down research laboratories and halt vital experiments, some of which have required years to design and carry out … experiments which are addressing the causes of cancer, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and so on. Recreating such research projects and replacing the hundreds of specially–trained research personnel who would be lost to such cuts could not happen overnight.   It will take years to educate and then replenish the technical support personnel so critical to a robust and competitive research enterprise.  Indeed, as recently reported, “the White House has warned that the reductions would force science agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to make hundreds, even thousands, fewer research awards, costing thousands of scientists and students their jobs” (The Chronicle of Education, March 1, 2013, p. A3).

At the national level, the National Institutes of Health would suffer a 5.1% cut to its programs of medical research.  The impact of such cuts would particularly affect young scientists who will find it increasingly difficult to receive the grant funding essential to carry out their research programs.   In the words of NIH Director, Francis Collins, “I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists.”  In fact, in December, NIH cut all of its existing grants by 10%, given the delayed 2013 budget…grants which support some 430,000 technical jobs.   As stated by biologist, Brad Schuster, “There are no furloughs in academic science.  If funding runs out, that’s it, everyone’s out on the street.” Mary Lasker, the iconic American health activist and advocate for medical research,  once said, “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”   Indeed, research is people intensive; and, the long-term consequences of having to re-educate a new generation of research scientists and the technical support staff so vital to their success is a daunting, and extremely costly,  prospect.

Like all areas of federal spending, the research programs of such agencies as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation must be focused and frequently reviewed to ensure cost effectiveness.  Priorities need to be identified and rigorously pursued.   However, it would be extremely deleterious to equate such research programs to programs in other agencies where financial cuts do not necessarily lead to major damage in the very infrastructure required for the programs to survive.   

In short, across-the-board cuts make no sense.  Decreasing spending by the government clearly must be a national priority; however, it must be done in a way which recognizes the differing requirements and cultures of tremendously diverse federal agency programs.   The level and phasing of cuts to these many programs can, and should, be carried out in ways which strengthen, not weaken each agency’s ability to fulfill its own individual mission.   If less time were devoted to political posturing, such careful and thoughtful budget analyses and realignments would, I feel, be possible - perhaps not in the next 18 hours, but certainly over the next several months. Let us urge our elected representatives to recommit themselves to such a deliberate, thoughtful and essential process.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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