Automatic federal budget cuts triggered Friday may pose a threat to funding for some areas of Duke research.
President Barack Obama and other Democrats did not reach a budgetary agreement with congressional Republicans on a method to avoid an automatic sequester by the March 1 deadline. This caused large-scale spending cuts totaling $85 billion across many sectors, including defense spending and discretionary domestic spending, which excludes entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Duke will feel the impact most severely in terms of decreased federal funding for medical and scientific research.
Duke received approximately $983 million in research funding for fiscal year 2010, and more than half—about $500 million—came from the federal government, said James Siedow, vice provost for research and professor of biology.
The Budget Control Act of 2011required lawmakers to reach an agreement that would reduce the debt before implementing automatic spending cuts. In response, Duke officials have met with the Obama administration as well as the North Carolina delegation to Congress multiple times to discuss the impacts of these budget cuts on research. Most officials and politicians have been understanding and supportive of research funding, said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations.
“Investing in research is a huge economic driver, and nobody disagrees with that,” he said.
Despite such public support for research, sequestration went into effect Friday, setting the gears in motion to cut federal funding for major research initiatives. The National Science Foundation has announced that they will not cut funding for any projects that are currently using NSF funds. They will, however, reduce the amount of grants they award by more than 1,000 proposals, Siedow said.
The National Institutes of Health, which provide most of funding for Duke medical research, has already accounted for possible cuts. Since Congress did not approve a budget for the current fiscal year, the NIH factored in an automatic 10 percent decrease in the funding it supplies to institutions, effective Jan. 1, 2013.
“The additional 5 percent budget decrease from the sequester fits into the original 10 percent that the NIH implemented,” said Paul Vick, Duke Medicine’s associate vice president for government relations. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and [the Medical Center] has been operating under this system just fine.”
Research in the basic sciences, which has a broader group of funding sources compared to medical research, receives a significant amount of funding from the NSF. Therefore, it may be subject to greater cuts, Siedow said.
Both Simmons and Siedow have been regularly contacting Duke faculty to discuss how to respond to the funding cuts, but, due to the uncertainty surrounding the magnitude as well as the scheduling of the cuts, most departments have been wary of stepping out too far ahead in their preparations.
Siedow said for now, head researchers are adopting an interdepartmental approach, combining efforts with other projects and hiring research development professionals to help organize the joint proposal. Through the proposal, a larger bulk sum of funding can be secured and subsequently distributed as needed across all projects involved.
A bridge funding process will also be set in place, in which research proposals that fall short of receiving grants can reapply in the following year and then receive funding. The Duke University Health System has a similar program in which it uses internal funds to bridge any financial gaps, Vick said.
Siedow noted that although these actions may help delay the full force of the cuts, they are temporary at best.
“If there is a real long-term decrease [in funding], the simple fact is that we can’t bridge everyone forever. We can’t even bridge everyone to begin with,” he said. “If things really reach a new low, the level of research at Duke will, unfortunately, show some decline.”
Siedow noted, however, that the immediate effects of the budget sequestration may not be as severe as some predict, especially compared to the expected cuts of fiscal year 2014. Most of the cuts will take at least five to six months to make an impact, and although the NSF will cut a thousand proposals, it will make them more gradually.
Simmons said he worries that the longer lawmakers wait to return to the bargaining table, the more Duke will feel the effects of the budget cuts.
“With more cuts, we’d be able to support fewer people, research might be harmed or slowed down and fewer discoveries and inventions will be made,” Simmons said. “And since we don’t know the [full] magnitude of the cuts, it is difficult for us to plan ahead.”