Oregon universities fear federal fund drop-off

EUGENE, Ore. — The stakes are high for the University of Oregon and Oregon State University if the impending automatic, across-the-board cuts to the federal budget are not averted by Congress and President Barack Obama.

That’s because the schools are among the top 100 research universities of 4,000 nationally, according to the Carnegie Classification system. The federal government pays the biggest chunk of the research done at Oregon universities, and they stand to lose, together, upwards of $28 million in 2013, should up to 10 percent of the federal budget be stripped on Jan. 2, as required by current law.

And the impact of these cuts would be felt beyond the universities, said Barry Toiv, spokesman for the Association of American Universities.

“Research is something most everybody realizes that the country has to do, and if we do more of it, we’ll all be better off, whether it’s the economy, whether there’s more cures for diseases, alternative forms of energy — all kinds of things,” he said.

Federal funds, for example, paid for basic research for the Internet, GPS and lasers, improvements to crop yields and discovery of medical cures. “Most economists would suggest that we should be spending more — not less — on research,” Toiv said. “Here we go undermining it at a time we should be increasing it.”

This is the so called “fiscal cliff” created by law last year in order to avoid an incident of national default because congressional Democrats and Republicans could not reach agreement on taxes and spending changes meant to address the national debt, which is more than $16 trillion.

But if leaders don’t change course by January, expect deep cuts locally to research funded by such agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, university officials say.

The University of Oregon stands to lose at least $11 million, although UO officials are still nailing down a total amount, said Kimberly Espy, the UO’s vice president for research and innovation.

At Oregon State University, research programs would lose $15 million, said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research. An additional $2 million would probably come out of the extension service, which helps Oregon families and businesses.

The cuts could jeopardize OSU programs in renewable energy, wave energy, crop research, and, also, new materials research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense.

A joint $20 million sustainable materials chemistry project by UO and OSU researchers is also on the line, Espy said.

“You can imagine that, if that was cut instantly by 10 percent, we’d lose $2 million off the top,” she said. “That would be less money to fund students, fewer undergrads working in the lab next to faculty, fewer research technicians coming from all over the country to work in the green chemistry center.”

The fiscal cliff also would have direct impacts on students and families that would make paying for college more difficult. The law allows a set of tax cuts to expire, so middle class families would pay as much as $2,000 more next year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

Pell grants were not included in the law, however, so they would not be reduced as a result of the fiscal cliff.

But federal work-study, which pays students for jobs on campus, could be reduced as well as some other federal scholarships for low income and minority students.

With less federal tuition support, universities will “have to raise tuition on the students who can afford it or the students will have to borrow more, and that’s something we don’t want to do,” Toiv said.

In addition, Obama is pushing to reduce the tax write offs that the wealthiest taxpayers take for charitable deductions to up to 28 percent of their total contribution, down from the current 35 percent. Foundations worry that could put a damper on giving.

The cuts raise significant potential for job losses, university officials said. The grants pay for research technicians, data coordinators, interviewers, lab assistants, data analysts and “many graduate research assistants,” Spinrad said.

Grants pay part of many faculty member salaries, and if they’re cut the universities would have to pick up the obligation, meaning cuts elsewhere to university budgets.

Espy said she’d expect some community spill over.

“Research funds employees,” she said. “We attract employees from all over the country to come and work at the UO. If we don’t have the funds available, that’s fewer in our community who are buying groceries and sending their kids to school.”

Lane County is home to dozens of scientific research businesses or non-profit groups. Some get federal grants directly or others have a synergistic relationship with university projects. Examples are the Oregon Research Institute, Oregon Social Learning Center, Deschutes Research, Iris Media and Oregon Center for Applied Science.

How deep, how wide, how far the cuts would range is all up in the air, and that’s unnerving for university officials.

The White House Office of Management and Budget issued general guidance, suggesting cuts of 8.2 percent in non defense areas of the budget and 9.4 in defense areas.

That would amount to $12.5 billion nationally in 2013 and nearly $95 billion over the 10-year life of the law, according to estimates.

The federal government hasn’t said whether it will take an even slice from all of the existing grants, as in, “You had a $300,000 grant, now it’s a $270,000 grant,” Toiv said.

Or, perhaps, the government will order cuts to whole research programs, the university officials said. Many of the national institutes and foundations have their own scientists and their own labs. If the government preserves those, university programs would see even deeper cuts.

“We don’t know if our budgets would be instantly cut or whether it would be ramped down or what the process would be,” Espy said. “It is very disconcerting. This goes into law, by definition, on Jan. 1. There’s not a lot of working days between now and Jan. 1. It’s not a lot of days to get something this big done.”

The cuts would be a “real disaster,” Toiv said, even if they amount to single digits. That’s because the law also capped research spending last year, ahead of the fiscal cliff, he said.

Research budgets are “already essentially flattened by the Budget Control Act, which means in real dollars, after inflation, there’s going to be less of it each year. Here you take another 10 percent out over that period of time, and you’ve cut deeply into the research infrastructure.”

The presidents of 150 research universities — including UO, OSU and Portland State University — sent a letter in July, urging the president and Congress to tackle the growth in entitlements, so the smaller part of the federal budget, where the research dollars are, can be left intact.

They presented the letter again this week as a reminder. “This is real,” Spinrad said. “We need to start thinking about solutions — and compelling Congress to do the right thing.”

The Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and The Science Coalition also this week put up a website that details the research going on at universities in all 50 states, including Oregon.

In the past, Toiv said, university research has seen strong bipartisan backing and President Obama has reiterated his continued support, but research is now embedded in a giant complex of issues that are under negotiation, “which makes it all the more tragic if it happens.”

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