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Looming ‘fiscal cliff’ threatens BU’s research funding, officials say

Should Congress fail to avoid going over the looming “fiscal cliff,” Boston University and other research institutions around the country will see significant negative repercussions, from cuts to federal research funding, BU officials said.

The fiscal cliff threatens federal research funding, as this funding is discretionary spending, said Jennifer Grodsky, vice president for BU Federal Relations in D.C.

“The way sequestration [scheduled funding cuts] works, financial aid funding like [Federal] Pell Grants are protected,” she said. “It’s discretionary funding that’s being threatened … The concern by BU and all research universities is that this fiscal cliff, which would have an across the board cut of about 8.2 percent, is going to impact all of those research grants as well.”

A number of tax cuts are due to expire on Dec. 31, the same time spending cuts are to take place. If the government were to fail in reaching a compromise on new legislation, taxes would raise about $500 billion and spending would be cut about $200 billion.

Grodsky said all federal agencies for discretionary funding, including those that give research grants to universities such as BU, would see an 8.2 percent cut were Congress not to reach a compromise by the Dec. 31 deadline.

“The NIH [National Institutes of Health] itself, for example, its budget would drop by 8.2 percent and they’d have to decide how they’re going to do that,” Grodsky said. “Do they cut intramural programs out of the NIH, do they cut grants that have already gone out to universities, do they cut grants they intended to put out but haven’t yet? It’s unclear but those agencies will see an 8.2-percent cut.”

BU receives research grants from a number of federal organizations, most notably the NIH, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, Grodsky said.

For the 2012 fiscal year, BU received $44,580,745 from 121 awards from NIH, according to NIH statistics. The BU Medical Campus received $116,030,729 from 241 awards.

If the NIH cut its grants to BU by even a significant portion of the 8.2 percent cut it faces, BU would lose millions of dollars in research grant money.

Leaders of various universities, hospitals, advocacy groups and other potentially affected parties are advocating a compromise be reached in D.C.

BU President Robert Brown co-signed a letter to U.S. Sen. Scott Brown with other Massachusetts university presidents and medical center leaders on Nov. 14. In the letter, the leaders said it was important to the Commonwealth’s economy that research funding not be cut.

“The federal dollars we receive have a return far beyond their initial investment, acting as a significant magnet for private sector dollars that spur job creation in Massachusetts and beyond,” the leaders wrote.

Leaders cited statistics from the American Association for the Advancement of Science demonstrating federal research funding in Massachusetts could be cut up to $3.1 billion dollars for longer than five years.

“This [cuts] would have severe consequences for research institutions in Massachusetts,” they wrote. “The effects of this drastic ‘reset’ of research support may drive a generation of young talent to other fields as they seek to establish reliable career paths.”

While Brown and other university and hospital leaders are advocating the importance of federal research funding, officials understand the depth of the issue, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.

“This is the biggest single issue in government today,” he said. “Every single sector of business, nonprofit, retirees, everyone is weighing in and our organizations, the higher education organizations are weighing in.”

Riley said while the cuts will be unfortunate, BU will adjust and there will be increased competition for research grants.

Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said schools cannot be expected to easily adjust to a decrease in funding.

“The problem is schools can’t simply take up the full slack of the federal government walking away from their commitment or investment in research or financial aid or other programs,” he said.

Doherty said while Federal Pell Grants are protected from the fiscal cliff, the wider effects of a failure to compromise could have implications for student enrollment.

“I think the thing folks are scared about is that a non-resolution prescribes a level of economic uncertainty and potential downturn that would then cause families to have to reassess whether they are in a position to continue to support their student who is in college,” he said.

Despite the political nuances, Doherty said he is optimistic lawmakers can reach a compromise.

Massachusetts college and hospital leaders wrote in their letter research funding must be protected and prioritized.

“We hope you will work together with your colleagues to adopt balanced deficit reduction strategies that view investment in research as a part of the budget solution rather than simply as an expenditure,” they wrote. “Support for federal research funding helps to ensure our nation’s health, prosperity, and international competitiveness. It has never been more important.”

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