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Sequester may hit Duke Lemur Center

The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium
The Devils took down the Florida State Seminoles, previously undefeated in the ACC, Saturday at Indoor Cameron Stadium

Government budget cuts may decrease available funding for research organizations such as the Duke Lemur Center and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, along with basic research at Duke.

The government spending sequester, which came into effect on March 1, imposes across-the-board reductions to the federal budget, likely affecting federally funded research organizations such as the National Science Foundation which funds many Duke research projects.

The Duke Lemur Center, which hosts the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar, currently receives about 20 percent of their annual budget from the NSF, and uses this federal funding for maintaining facilities as well as supporting its employees. The funds are used for salaries, food, uniforms, vet care and supplies and have a large impact on daily operations, said Greg Dye, operations manager of the Lemur Center, adding that not a lot of information is yet available about the impact of the impending cuts.

Though the center does receive 50 percent of its funding from the University and generates its own revenue through tours, Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder emphasized the importance of this federal funding.

“It would be analogous to you losing 20 percent of your salary, from which you pay your living expenses,” she wrote in an email Thursday. “In our case, it would mean the loss of jobs, and consequently, our ability to care for our lemur colony would be compromised.”

Both Dye and Yoder noted that though the next one to two years of operations may be unaffected by any cuts, longer term research by the center could be impacted greatly. The Lemur Center is currently conducting around 20 different research studies, which include locomotive studies as well as non-invasive neural imaging with mouse lemurs and flat-tailed dwarf lemurs, to study the affects of aging and Alzheimer’s in primates.

“For the first time, we can see in the primate brain... the plaques and tangles that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

The Lemur Center is trying to obtain funding from the National Institutes of Health with these more health-based research projects, although the probability of receiving this additional funding is unclear.

Currently, NSF is the largest supporter of Duke’s arts and sciences research, with 37 percent of funding coming from that organization in 2012. The three other major federal funding contributors include the NIH with 27 percent of research funding, the Department of Defense with 9 percent and the Department of Energy with 5 percent. Although the Department of Defense has said they do not expect to cut funding for basic research occurring at Duke, what will happen with the NSF is less certain, said James Siedow, vice provost for research and professor of biology.

“NSF is all basic research, so consequently they are going to take a five percent cut across the board on various programs,” he said. “They are not going to cut [current funding] but new and competing renewal grants that are coming down the pike… is where they will take the five percent cut out of.”

Siedow added that as the sequester compounds over the next five years, the NIH, the second largest contributor to Duke’s arts and sciences funding, will have a budget about 24 percent smaller than it does today.

The NSF could not be reached for a statement about their financial expectations for the future.

Other research organizations in North Carolina are also wary of the federal budget cuts. The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham may face similar funding challenges in the future. Originally created from a NSF grant obtained by Duke, the organization is very dependent on NSF funding to support their operations, wrote Allen Rodrigo, director of NESCent and Duke biology professor, in a Thursday email. The NSF policy, negotiated before the sequester, dictated that funding would only be allocated for 10 years of operation and cannot be renewed, he added.

“Since we approach our 10th year, this means that we have no opportunity to apply for a non-competitive renewal of funding, and will have to rely on any funds in our budget that are unspent to keep us going,” he added. “We anticipate that if we are able to use these ‘carryover funds,’ we will be able to keep going for another six months after the end of 2014.”

NESCent currently has programs going that are expected to continue for two to three more years, and the sequester makes it difficult for the organization to guarantee continued funding for these unfinished projects.

Siedow noted that, though the effects of the sequester have not yet been felt by the University, he expects an increase in proposals and a decrease in available grants in the second half of this fiscal year.

“Anybody who is requesting funding right now from any of the government organizations is realizing that the grants are much more competitive and funding opportunities are reducing, which isn’t a good combination,” Dye said.


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