Sequestration threatens academic research

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As Hurricane Sandy wreaks havoc in D.C. and the East Coast, another storm is brewing in the nation’s capital. However, this storm is one of a slightly different nature.

Sequestration, the budgetary measure proposed by President Barack Obama that would cut $1.2 trillion over a ten year period, would reduce funding significantly in the areas of research and development, unless Congress is able to agree on an alternative plan to reduce the nation’s deficit by Jan. 2, 2013.

“Predictions are a real danger in my line of work…but I’d say there’s a decent chance…because it is current law…but Congress is proactively taking steps to prevent [sequestration], and there is a lot of opposition against it in the country,” said Robert Knotts, Tech’s Director of Federal Relations in Washington D.C.

According to a recent report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), sequestration could reduce federal research and development spending by $57.5 billion, or 8.4 percent, through 2017 — an average of $11.5 billion per year.

More specifically, defense research and development could be reduced 9.1 percent, roughly to 2002 levels, while nondefense agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy could see research and development cuts of 7.6 percent, each over a five year period.

According to Knotts, last year, Tech received more than $650 million in federal research grants, two-thirds of which came from the federal government through agencies such as the NSF and NIH. These grants are among the areas that face cuts if sequestration were to happen, resulting in serious concern from Tech’s administration.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), which employs more than 1,600 people, nearly 300 of which are Tech students, receives 97 percent of their funding from the federal government and works primarily with the Department of Defense. That 97 percent amounts to $306 million of Tech’s total received in federal awards.

“Down the road, it would have an impact. It could have a 10 percent or more impact on our total workforce and our ability to support students,” said GTRI Director Bob McGrath.

“Georgia Tech has its reputation because of how much research we’re doing, and how innovative we’re being…cutting edge research helps our [Tech’s] image and influences potential student and faculty decisions,” Knotts said.

In the past four months, President Peterson has demonstrated his opposition to sequestration and its potential negative effects by signing two letters headed to Obama and Congress leaders. These letters, one from the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the other from the Task Force on American Innovation (TFAI), emphasize to leaders in Washington the importance of continued research and development funding.

The full effects of sequestration, in many areas, would not be truly felt until later in 2013. The cuts would translate to a 10 percent across-the-board cut in defense spending, impacting mostly future work and future awards, not current projects.

“We have a notable backlog of work…in the realm of nine months…so if sequestration happens, it would impact us the following year,” McGraff said. “We don’t anticipate that there would be an immediate catastrophe of any type, but it would affect future capabilities and future enhancements of various systems or operations.”

Students are also recognizing the threat sequestration poses to Tech’s continued future as a cutting edge research institute.

Earlier this week, SGA brought to the floor a resolution, which has since been approved by UHR but is still being addressed in GSS. The resolution addresses the issues involved with sequestration and encourages legislators on Capitol Hill to work towards economic stability and continued growth in the areas of research and development.

“I commend [Tech’s] student government leaders for their interest in this topic…It’s really helpful to have students and faculty weigh in on issues like [sequestration]…the more communication we have to Congress, the better,” Knotts said.
GTRI, although confident that they have adequate time to prepare for the potential impacts of sequestration, has developed strategies that will shield it from many of the negative results, placing itself in the position in which much of its contractual work from the federal government involves improving and retrofitting older systems to meet the new standards.

“Even if sequestration doesn’t kick in, we are anticipating that the overall defense budget is going to contract. So that means that there will be more competitiveness for work that the defense department needs to have done,” McGraff said.

“Unless there is some additional catastrophe that causes the federal government to actually start cancelling contracts, but even within the sequestration activity, there is not any plan to cancel any existing contracts.”

While the immediate issue of sequestration is pressing, the bigger issue that needs addressing, according to Knotts, is the overall lack of stability in the US economy.

“If we don’t deal with the long term fiscal problems, we will constantly be revisiting this over and over,” Knotts said.