Federal budget cut coming Friday could cost KU millions in research funding

As morning dawns on Friday, it might seem like just another day on the Kansas University campus. But behind the scenes, millions of dollars that flow to workers, students and research will suddenly be in jeopardy.

Barring a last-minute agreement in Washington, D.C., Friday is the day that across-the-board cuts will slice into federal government spending — including the pipeline of federal research funds that flows to KU this year. Officials refer to the cuts as “sequestration,” or simply “the sequester.”

And two months after a similar deadline loomed but was temporarily averted, it’s here again.

Whatever you want to call them, the cuts will likely have an immediate effect at KU. Officials can’t be sure exactly what it will be, but odds are the cuts will touch jobs, student assistantships and more. And KU officials say they could hurt the state’s economic development for years to come.

“I guess you could say we’re as ready as we could be, probably, for this,” said Steve Warren, KU’s vice chancellor of research and graduate studies. “But it will have a big impact, and we’ll see it in all sorts of different ways.”

More than $200 million in federal research funding flows to KU each year, funding work related to cancer treatments, alternative fuel sources, improved education of students with disabilities and much more. That money comes in the form of grants awarded by numerous federal research agencies, and it pays for salaries, tuition and living costs for graduate students and other related expenses.

The sequester set to go in place Friday would force each of the federal agencies that fund KU’s research — along with other federal nondefense discretionary spending — to cut their annual budgets by about 5.1 percent. But that applies to the current federal fiscal year, which is already five months old. That means the immediate drop-off in funding could be more like 10 percent.

KU estimates a potential loss in research funding of $12.6 million for the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Sequestration could also hurt KU students’ federal financial aid, though the damage there will not be as severe as it would be to research funding, said Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs.

In some cases, KU researchers may have to cut their budgets as soon as next week.

“We’re in the middle of a semester, these projects are rolling along, and it’s just hard to take these kind of cuts so quickly,” Warren said.

Though each federal agency must lop that same 5.1 percent off its budget, it’s not yet clear exactly how that will happen.

The National Science Foundation says it will mostly award fewer new grants. The National Institutes of Health have announced they would cut the amounts of already-existing grants. The U.S. Department of Education — the third of KU’s biggest grant sources — has said little.

KU researchers in charge of federal grants have already been planning for weeks about how they might deal with drop-offs in funding.

Take Charles Greenwood, the director of KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, for example.

The center in downtown Kansas City, Kan., conducts research on and develops programs for the education and parenting of children ranging from infants to teenagers, primarily from low-income families.

It receives about $6 million to $7 million in federal funding each year, primarily from the U.S. Department of Education. That money accounts for about 90 percent of its budget, which provides for 65 employees and graduate research assistants.

A 5.1 percent reduction in that funding would mean a loss of somewhere between $300,000 to $400,000 between now and the end of September.

On top of that, Juniper Gardens has submitted grant proposals worth more than $3 million that are now sitting atop desks untouched, because agencies aren’t approving new grants amid all the uncertainty. Its existing grants won’t last forever, so that puts funding for future years in jeopardy.

“We have real dilemmas to face here,” Greenwood said.

If the sequester stays in place through the summer, he said he’ll have to take some serious measures. The project will support fewer graduate students, and staff may be let go. The project may even have trouble paying the rent for the off-campus space it leases.

“We will try to support them through this semester, and after that we’ll have to make cuts,” Greenwood said. “We’ll probably need to make cuts in staffing. These are just imminent things.”

And fewer children, parents and teachers will be reached by the project’s programs.

KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little has joined with other university leaders around the country to call on Congress to “stop the sequester,” in an effort organized by the Association of American Universities and other national groups. In an online video for the group ScienceWorksForU.S., Gray-Little said that the cuts would hurt medical research and economic development.

The video drew criticism last week from U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, who said that sequestration is a “home run” because of the federal spending reduction it would force: about $85 billion over the next seven months.

Caboni is in Washington, D.C., this week to talk with leaders about the issue.

The message KU is sending, he said, is that the sequester’s brand of cuts is too blunt and doesn’t consider possible damage to research and development that could damage the economy for years.

“It is truly a meat cleaver and not a scalpel,” Caboni said.

Better, he said, would be a budget that balances discretionary spending cuts with reforms to entitlement spending and the tax code.

Warren added that sequestration was put in place as a measure to encourage Congress and President Obama to reach a deficit-reduction agreement. The negative incentive it was meant to provide, he said, is becoming all too clear.

“Remember, the sequester was intended to be something that no one ever wanted to do,” Warren said. “That’s why it’s a really nasty, nasty tool for budgeting.”