In the beginning of 2013, Congress passed legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff and allowed sequester cuts to begin on March 1. Because the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction did not come to a deal to reduce the deficient by $1.5 trillion, mandatory and discretionary programs are now losing funding.
Discretionary programs fund basic research and all have a mandatory cut of five percent. The college’s science department is now feeling the pain of D.C.’s inaction. Federal spending cuts mean professors could have less financial resources to support their research.
“NSF and NASA are federal agencies that provide funding for research that faculty and, in some cases, students are involved in conducting,” said Gregg Strand, associate director of corporate foundation and government relations.
The majority of the funds for science research at the college comes from programs like NASA and NSF. This year, these agencies will likely see close to eight percent in budget reductions.
“If they cut eight percent of the NSF budget, that doesn’t mean that every project might get cut by eight percent,” Strand said. “You don’t know how an agency is going to sort it out internally. As a general rule, when they make cuts it’s going to be harder to get the grants because of the competition.”
Though the college is a teaching institution and not a research institution, the federal government has provided just under $1 million in total grant amounts. Research grants awarded to faculty or students before fiscal year 2013 should not be affected.
“It shouldn’t have a major impact on the current funding that we have,” Strand said. “In most cases when there’s federal cuts, they will take effect on a certain date and then new awards or future awards could be effected.”
NASA granted two grants totaling $500,000 to Vanessa McCaffrey, associate professor of chemistry, and Nicolle Zellner, associate professor of physics. They’re studying how simple sugars change under conditions that mimic meteoric impacts.
“We got an official email from our program officer saying that budgets at NASA were being affected and that our proposal might be affected also,” McCaffrey said. “They were looking over the budget and would be contacting us soon.”
About half of the students in the chemistry department go on to graduate school after receiving an Albion degree. The sequester is affecting admission, too.
“If they continue to cut the research budgets, they’re not going to be able to accept as many students into graduate schools because they won’t be able to pay them,” McCaffrey said. “Our students are seeing this already. It’s getting harder and harder to get into graduate schools because they’re not accepting as many students because the faculty member can’t support as many students.”
Zellner also has grants from NASA and NSF to analyze lunar impact glasses from the Apollo samples. She believes there are global implications for D.C.’s inaction because American graduate students are now working abroad.
“This means that the U.S. is suffering a brain drain when some of our top young researchers are leaving the country to do research elsewhere,” Zellner said. “As for other science programs, less money from federal granting agencies means fewer grad students getting masters and Ph.D. degrees in science and fewer post-docs being supported to further develop their skills.”
The sequester will have long-term effects on the country’s scientific progress.
“If the government does not fund basic research at a stable level every year, there will definitely be challenges in maintaining our status as the nation leading the way in science and technology, which can affect prosperity and innovation,” Zellner said.
Photo by Megan Sheridan