No clear answers on effects of possible sequester

Feb. 28, 2013

by Chris Barncard

Some federal funding to UW–Madison could be in jeopardy if Congress does not act before March 1 to avoid a set of spending cuts it passed in 2011.

But the size and type of cuts — referred to as sequestration — that could actually reach Madison are difficult to predict.

“At this stage, the potential effects of sequestration remain somewhat ambiguous,” says Graduate School Dean and Vice Chancellor for Research Martin Cadwallader. “There is uncertainty about specific effects, and the federal funding agencies are only now beginning to spell out some of the ways sequestration might affect research funding.”

The Budget Control Act of 2011 orders 5.1 percent budget reductions for several domestic discretionary spending programs, including higher education and research. Defense discretionary spending would fall 7.3 percent.

“We receive our research funding grant-by-grant, and grant funding we have received should not be affected,” says Rhonda Norsetter, UW–Madison director of federal relations. “No one is going to send us a letter that says, ‘Please return millions of dollars.’”

Instead, sequestration would likely take a bite out of funding available for future research. Cuts would begin with $85.3 billion in fiscal year 2013, totaling $1.2 trillion through fiscal 2021.

Based on the 5.1 percent reduction set in the Budget Control Act of 2011, Norsetter estimates a 2013 decline of about $34 million in UW–Madison research grant awards from agencies including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, NASA, departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy and Defense, and others.

Just how the funding changes will shake out agency-to-agency is unknown. At the behest of the Senate Appropriations Committee, federal agencies have begun gathering more detailed descriptions of the impact of sequestration cuts.

“Should sequestration go into effect, we expect we will learn a lot more next week as the agencies begin more active communication efforts,” Cadwallader said. “We’ll be working to share information with the campus community as we get it.”

It is unlikely the impacts will settle proportionally on all organizations applying for federal research funding.

“We’re a top, competitive research university,” Norsetter said. “If it’s a matter of the competition getting tougher for a smaller amount of funding, we may do better than others.”

Some federal student aid support is also endangered by sequestration, though Norsetter said it appears aid will not likely take cuts as proportionally large as other UW–Madison funding sources. Pell Grants will be protected from cuts for at least fiscal 2013.