President McRobbie

Sequestration could cut valuable research

Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Indianapolis Star on November 27, 2012.

With the national election behind us, Congress and President Obama now face one of the largest challenges in recent memory as they attempt to resolve the automatic spending cuts scheduled for early next year under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Known as budget sequestration, these draconian across-the-board reductions in most federal programs are little more than a blunt tool that would reduce federal spending but at the risk of stalling the fragile economic recovery currently under way and damaging our long-term economic vitality.

The U.S. government’s rapidly growing level of debt must be a priority, but we need a balanced approach to deficit reduction that eliminates wasteful spending, and which provides meaningful tax and entitlement reforms.

The stakes could hardly be higher for our economy and for research universities such as Indiana University, which are the engines that power much of the scientific technological and economic growth. Indeed, economists have estimated that half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years has been a direct result of scientific and technological innovation, much of it powered by federal investment in university-based research.

IU has a long history of research discoveries that have yielded breath-taking advances in human knowledge and produces some of the world’s most ubiquitous commercial products. Past generations of IU graduates and researchers have helped unlock the mysteries of DNA and the atom, and developed fluoridated toothpaste that dramatically reduced tooth decay worldwide.

IU faculty members are at the forefront of research to treat cancer, diabetes and epilepsy, and to improve the success rates for lung transplant patients. IU faculty make vital contributions to research into the geology of Mars and the formation and evolution of galaxies—research that expands our scientific understanding of the universe. These are just a few of the many ways IU is making a positive difference.

Many of these discoveries would not have been possible without support from federal programs such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and others that have been vital partners with IU throughout the years.

Also, academic research has a multiplier effect on the economy. In addition to the benefits accrued as a result of the research outcomes achieved, university research translates into economic activity and jobs to the communities and states where universities are located.

An economic impact study commissioned by IU last year showed that the university spent $509 million on research in fiscal year 2009, much of that the result of the types of federal grants that would be at risk if the budget sequestration occurs. That spending—in the form of salaries, equipment, facility construction and more—generated $844 million in total economic impact and supported more than 6,500 direct and indirect jobs in Indiana.

Indiana is fortunate to have two of America’s great research universities in IU and Purdue University, where faculty and students are every day engaged in research that has the potential to save lives and improve the standard of living for Hoosiers today and well into the future.

For example, IU researchers were awarded $533 million in fiscal year 2012—the second highest annual total in the university’s history—half of which came from federal agencies that will be subject to cuts under the impending budget sequestration.

A university analysis of the effects of budget sequestration on IU’s research funding suggests that nearly $20 million could be in jeopardy in 2013. That is $20 million in lost funds that could jeopardize key research efforts and reduce university-powered economic activity in the short-term and which would undoubtedly result in an even larger drag on Indiana’s knowledge economy in the long run.

During the presidential campaign, both candidates spoke passionately about the role that scientific and technological innovation must play if the U.S. is to maintain its standing as the pre-eminent global economic power. Now leaders must quickly come together to forge a compromise that addresses our burgeoning debt and deficit without mortgaging our future as a scientific and economic leader.

Sequestration is not the answer to our fiscal challenges. Rather, we should address them through comprehensive measures that focus on the real drivers of these problems and that do not indiscriminately cut a wide swath through programs that serve the long-term interests of our economy.