While the crisis over the federal government shutdown and debt ceiling has been averted for the moment, the sequestration remains a challenge for Georgia Tech and other universities that receive federal research funding. The sequestration, which cuts federal budgets across the board, had begun to affect Georgia Tech prior to the shutdown crisis. We are now learning more about how these cuts – five percent a year for the next eight years – will affect us.
The sequestration will lead to fewer graduate student assistantships, reduced capital improvement programs – and potentially, a smaller Georgia Tech research program. Together, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health – two of our largest sponsors – had projected making approximately 1,700 fewer grant awards nationwide in FY 13 compared to the year before. If this continues, the sequestration will have a dramatic negative effect on innovation and the long-term economic health and competitiveness of the United States.
The impact on Georgia Tech’s research program from the sequestration has, so far, been relatively small – about four percent in fiscal 2013, the year that concluded on June 30. But if this continues, we expect the cuts to start adding up during 2014 as agencies exhaust their options for juggling funds, leading to a much more substantial impact by FY 2015. While the cuts will hit the Institute’s research program first, because research dollars account for approximately half of the Institute’s overall budget, the effects will ultimately be felt campus-wide. And this could go on for the next eight years.
Sequestration impacts have been very real for those who work for the federal agencies that provide nearly 75 percent of our research funding. We sympathized with them last summer as they experienced a series of furloughs that hampered their ability to accomplish important defense, health, and homeland security work. Even though federal agencies have seen budget instability before, the scale of these cuts is having a serious effect on their ability to advance important national goals through the support of groundbreaking research.
Although we saw an increase in the number of research awards won during FY 2013 – a credit to our hardworking faculty and staff – the overall value of these awards declined as the average award size decreased. Additionally, we did not secure at least one major program we had expected to win – as a result of the agency funding one fewer new center than it had planned. Based on feedback from our sponsors, we believe the number of new awards will continue to decline as we move through 2014. Among other things, this will negatively affect the number of graduate students we can support during the four to six years it takes to earn a Ph.D.
Like the broader research community, we worry about the long-term effects of sequestration on our national system of higher education, which is now the world’s best. Since World War II, the United States has built a system of higher education that has attracted the best and brightest students from around the world. But, sequestration will mean fewer graduate students trained and mentored, and fewer opportunities to attract top students.
University research helped fuel the innovation that has made the United States an economic powerhouse. However, we risk losing our leadership position in a single decade if research cutbacks result in fewer innovations, less research and development, fewer creative students and difficulty retaining top faculty. Perhaps most importantly, the sequestration has created a climate of uncertainty that will discourage the kind of risk-taking needed to maintain world leadership in science and technology innovation. This will hurt our innovation ecosystem at a time when our competitors are strengthening theirs.
Georgia Tech’s Executive Leadership Team and Office of Federal Relations continue to monitor the situation closely. We are staying in contact with our major sponsors, and remain hopeful that Congress will lift the sequestration and come to a sensible long-term budget and debt-ceiling agreements. We are talking with policymakers about the effects we are feeling and the harmful long-term consequences we see ahead, while encouraging them to pursue budget solutions that reverse planned cuts to research and education.
In the meantime, we are working hard to diversify our research awards to include more industrial support, and to reduce the administrative demands on faculty members so they can spend more of their time teaching, mentoring students, serving Georgia and conducting research. In the face of this uncertainty, we are asking everyone at Georgia Tech to continue to preserve and conserve wherever possible until our budget situation becomes clearer.
In July, Steven Warren, vice chancellor for research at the University of Kansas, described the sequestration as a “slow-growing cancer.” If we cannot stop this cancer, it will produce an innovation deficit and cause damage that will become increasingly difficult to repair. Georgia Tech’s leadership is doing all it can to address the challenges of sequestration, and we continue working to minimize its impact on Georgia Tech’s students, staff and faculty. We appreciate all that our hard-working faculty and students are doing to advance Georgia Tech’s mission of solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
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