While disagreement in Congress inches Washington, D.C., closer to a possible government shutdown — President Barack Obama rejected the House Republicans’ proposal Tuesday to cut federal spending by $5.8 trillion over the next decade — the state of future federal funding for research at Cornell looks “tough but not disastrous,” said Robert Buhrman, senior vice provost for research.
“What is very much unknown for us is how bad it will be in the short term and long term,” Buhrman said. Estimating that there could be a 10-percent reduction in national funding for university-based research, Buhrman said that, while he is “certainly not anticipating growth in research,” he remains “roughly optimistic that this will not be fatal.”
According to a report by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, Cornell received $453.8 million, or 59.4 percent of its funding for sponsored research from the government, including $223 million from the Department of Health and Human Services and $141.9 million from the National Science Foundation. Although some of the $150 million of “unusual funding” from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will continue to support University research for the remainder of this fiscal year, in the long term — with President Obama reducing or terminating more than 120 federal programs in his 2011-2012 budget and House Republicans proposing $8 billion in cuts to federal research funding in Continuing Resolution H.R. 1 — Buhrman said he anticipates cutbacks.
Because the majority of Cornell’s research funding is competitively awarded by federal agencies, Dianne Miller, director of federal relations, said the cuts would force “a lot of people to be competing for a smaller piece of the pie.” Though a 10-percent cut in federal spending would not necessarily correlate to a 10-percent cut for Cornell, reduced availability of funds would lead to a smaller share of projects receiving funding, she said.
“There is currently support for both fundamental and applied research on both sides of the political spectrum ... But there are many research ideas that are not being supported,” said Buhrman, who described the funding process as being “extremely competitive.”
While Buhrman said he would not be “too concerned” should a short term government shutdown occur, he said a longer shutdown in which money that had already been committed was withdrawn would pose greater consequences.
“To some extent, we’re hoping that’s not the worst case outcome, because we receive between 300 [million] to 400 million dollars for research and much more for Pell Grants,” he said. “If that spigot [of funding] were turned off and not turned back on in a few days, it would have indeterminable consequences which we are assuming will not happen.”
In turn, the cuts could jeopardize jobs affiliated with research. At a press conference at Cornell on Mar. 21, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) reported that 8,200 employees at Cornell have all or part of their salaries and benefits provided through federal grants and contracts, including 160 whose jobs were created specifically by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“[The] 160 jobs coming out of the federal process [are] making life better for these people, but also making it better for the community by creating more jobs [and] generating income,” Hinchey said. “People are working in very effective ways here at Cornell. [H.R. 1] is going to eliminate their jobs, but it’s also going to eliminate all the good work that they do for a host of other people.”
Though House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said in a statement that the “spending-driven debt crisis is costing the American people the job growth they’re depending on and condemning our children and grandchildren to a bankrupt future,” Democrats disagree with the Republicans’ specific proposals for reducing spending.
Hinchey thinks it is crucial to address the deficit, but believes that cutting Pell Grants and research investments would be the wrong approach, according to Mike Morosi, Hinchey’s press secretary.
“Cornell is using federal funding to develop the new energy technologies that will power the 21st century, cure diseases that have plagued the world for centuries and improve agricultural systems to help feed the hungry,” Morosi said. “These are investments in our future and they should not be cut.”
In the meantime, as Congress remains in gridlock, Miller said Cornell’s office of federal government relations is advocating for Cornell to protect the University from potential budget reductions.
“My colleagues and I have spent the last three months educating [Congress] to what Cornell does, highlighting some of the higherprofile research projects and explaining to our Congressmen and Senators what would happen if our research funding was cut,” Miller said. In addition to contacting government officials, Miller said the University has also worked with colleagues in peer institutions to “make sure our message is consistent.”
Despite these efforts, in her more than 20 years of working in Washington, “it’s never been this difficult before,” Miller said.
Regardless of the final budget, Buhrman said that losing support would have enormous consequences.
“Can we do wonderful things with five to 10 percent less funding? Yes, but we can do a lot more with continued funding,” Buhrman said. “Cornell is one of the world’s leading research universities and we think what we do gives enormously to society ... [and] is educating the future leaders of the country, as well as the world.”