February 21, 2013

Potential Sequester May Cut Cornell’s Federal Funds By Six to Eight Percent

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If Congress does not come to an agreement on how to cut the U.S.’ deficit by March 1, it will slash the country’s budget by more than $85 billion — leading to a six to eight percent reduction in Cornell’s federal funding. University administrators warned that the so-called “sequester” cuts may lead to a decrease in research funding, jobs and financial aid that is supported by the government.

The cuts would slash the budgets of government agencies, like the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health, which provide research funding to Cornell, according to Robert Buhrman Ph.D. ’73, senior vice provost for research.

“[The reduction] is not cataclysmic, but if you are the individual whose pro­­­­ject is stopped, it is cataclysmic,” Buhrman said.

In 2012, Cornell’s research programs received $466 million from the federal government, which constituted 80 percent of all University research funds, according to Buhrman.

About 70 percent of Cornell’s research funds support graduate students and research staff. The remaining funds cover the cost of equipment, electricity and other facilities, according to Buhrman.

If the sequester occurs, the University will see an inevitable decrease in the number of jobs in research it can support, but the amount of jobs it may have to cut is unknown, according to Buhrman. The University’s current funding provides a cushion so that individuals will not lose their jobs immediately. However, if programs are not renewed over time, funding for the jobs will cease, Buhrman said.

“If the sequestration goes into effect, it will be implemented in a rolling fashion, so it is impossible to say now how some things are going to be affected,” said Simeon Moss, vice president for University communications.

Diane Miller, director of federal relations at Cornell, said that it is unclear how budget cuts will specifically affect research at Cornell because federal agencies have not decided how they will distribute cuts.

As a result, the effects of the budget cuts are not clear — agencies may make cuts across the board, they may renew select grants, they may reduce one project’s budget more than another, or they may choose to direct more funding to other research universities, Miller said.

“Would you have to lay somebody off if you lost five percent of your grant? It depends how big your grant is. If it $100,000, then probably not. But if it is a $10 million grant, then probably,” Miller said.

If the sequester occurs, federal financial aid may also be negatively affected. Although Pell Grants — a federal grant given to undergraduates with financial need — are protected by the act, it is not clear how other aid programs will be affected, according to Miller.

The only effects that are known is that processing times will be slower since the office of financial aid, which is subject to the sequestration, may need to lay off workers, according to Miller. Additionally, origination fees, which compensate for the cost of processing and lending funds, will rise by 7.5 percent, increasing the cost of borrowing money for students.

Although Cornell could face tough budget cuts, the University is not looking to alumni to make up for the reduction in the research budget, Buhrman said.

“We have very generous alumni and other donors to Cornell. Those funds that they donate support other things. We do not anticipate and I do not think it is either reasonable or feasible to anticipate that we will supplant a reduction in federal funding with donations,” Buhrman said.

Instead of seeking donations, Cornell will strive to expand its funding base to include industrial, state and foundation funding, according to Buhrman.

The budget cuts will not only affect Cornell but may also affect the Ithaca area, according to Buhrman.

If there are fewer individuals studying at Cornell, then there may be less money flowing into Ithaca’s economy, accodrding to Buhrman.

The sequestration cuts may have also larger consequences for the nation, according to Buhrman. The portion of the United State’s GDP that is spent on research and development has been declining at a faster rate than other nations, Buhrman said. This may lead to a “brain drain”, or emigration of  highly trained and intelligent individuals to nations that can better sustain their interests.

According to Miller, the government has been intensifying the way it is talking about sequestration so that the public will perceive the outcome to be as harsh as possible.

“[The federal government] has been trying to make [the sequester] sound as scary as possible,” Miller said. “They’re saying: We’re not going to have meat inspectors in slaughterhouses, we’re not going to hire TSA agents at the airport, we’re not going to have as many air traffic controllers.’ They are trying to make it sound as scary as possible so that the outcome sounds like it will have an effect on everyone’s day to day life.”

As it waits for Congress to act, Cornell is using a team of administrators on Capitol Hill to communicate with senators about the potential sequestration.

“Until the sequester happens and the agencies tell us what is going to happen we’re just waiting. All the research universities are suggesting strongly to Congress and the administration that they find alternative way to deal with fiscal challenges of country,” Buhrman said.

Original Author: Alexa Davis