President McRobbie

Damaging sequester must end

Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in The Journal Gazette on November 25, 2013.

The 16-day partial government shutdown may be over, but still looming mightily over Washington is the shadow of the sequester and a Dec. 13 deadline for Congress to reach agreement on a budget resolution for the next fiscal year.

The challenge facing the House and Senate is how to resolve the automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget spending cuts that went into effect last March and prevent another round of reductions, which could have catastrophic effects on our country’s still-fragile economic recovery, from taking effect early next year.

Our system of government provides for limits and checks on power at the federal level. This guarantees an opportunity for all sides of an issue to have leverage and influence as decisions are made. This also carries with it an expectation that there will be consensus and compromise that reflects the concerns of all sides.

Cuts in federal education and research programs are starting to severely harm our nation’s ability to compete with other countries, such as China and South Korea, that continue to make major investments in innovation. When sequestration took effect, the budget for the National Science Foundation, the funding source for about a fifth of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities, was reduced by $356 million. The budget for the National Institutes of Health, the country’s largest supporter of basic scientific research, shrunk by $1.5 billion. NIH Director Francis Collins recently said the agency had issued 640 fewer research grants in the last fiscal year. Collins also explained that the odds of a scientist’s receiving a federal grant had dramatically lessened.

The reduction in federal funding is beginning to take a toll on research at universities such as IU known for producing path-breaking advancements in human knowledge and commercial products and treatments that have improved – and sometimes even saved – lives. Over the years, IU researchers have helped unlock the mysteries of DNA, developed fluoridated toothpaste and contributed mightily to the Nobel Prize-winning work that, just last year, detected the elusive Higgs boson particle. Many of these discoveries would never have happened without support from federal programs that have been among our most vital partners. Awards from these and other agencies constitute half of IU’s annual research totals.

Stanley Spinola is the chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the IU School of Medicine. He is researching a novel antimicrobial strategy that could serve as an effective response to E. coli, which continues to cause serious poisoning in humans. Before sequestration Spinola’s research would have been funded by the NIH. Instead, the reduced NIH budget resulted in his missing the cut. Now, rather than furthering research that might make a real difference in helping the 70,000 Americans sickened by E. coli each year, he must spend time revising his proposal, which still does not guarantee future funding.

The reduction in federal research grants also has a direct effect on our ability to provide the resources our students need to attend college, complete their degrees on time and with no or little debt, and leave with the experience they require to be successful after graduation.

The sequestration has already forced IU to cut $150,000 from its federal work-study program, which provides part-time employment on and off campus to students with major financial need. These cuts will result in a loss of 75 jobs on our campuses across the state.

To prevent further damage to our research enterprise and to continue to provide the opportunities our best young minds deserve, we must not go down the sequester path again. We need to rediscover the road to reason and common ground.

The time has come for serious negotiations leading to a compromise on the federal budget that will end sequestration. Congress and President Barack Obama must come together to design a compromise that replaces the sequester with an approach that brings a balanced approach to budgetary discipline.

Both sides should consider taking a hard look at structural reforms to entitlement programs and at tax reform, both of which would also help create funding opportunities for educational and research investments that will ultimately benefit the quality of life of all Americans.

It is imperative that both parties in Congress and the president put the national interest first and work together to reach a reasonable compromise that avoids the long-term damage that a second round of sequester cuts will clearly cause.

Failure to do so will not only further erode public trust in our federal government, it will also put at risk America’s unquestioned international leadership in areas of scientific research and technology that are so vital to our economic and national security and the success of future generations of our top young minds.