Roughly $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts were enacted March 1 after Washington lawmakers failed to agree upon a satisfactory deal between Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House to reduce $4 trillion from the U.S. deficit.
The Sequester, as the cuts are referred to in the U.S. federal budget, seek to diminish the national debt by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years by reducing federal spending across the board in defense — typically resisted by Republicans—non-discretionary cuts — typically resisted by Democrats — and discretionary programs as a compromise between the two parties, with the exception of some major areas such as Social Security and pay for federal employees. Considering federal funding has traditionally made up a majority of research funding on campus, the Sequester, now entering its second month in effect, has begun to strain opportunities for research at UCSB.
According to UCSB Vice Chancellor for Research Michael Witherell, federal agencies began limiting funding preemptively, leading to cuts effective before the Sequester was signed into law March 1.
“In the University of California system and at UCSB, we have received about 20 percent less research funding over the last six months compared to the same period one year ago,” Witherell said in an email.“Last year was a record year for research funding, of course.”
Materials and Electrical and Computer Engineering professor John Bowers said though funding for current research projects is not a problem, there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of new projects available.
“The problem is that there are very few new research requests coming out of the government agencies, and consequently, new starts with new ideas and research and hiring new grad students … certainly diminished,” he said. “I think we all believe in the need to control budgets, control spending in Washington. The question is making the right choices on that spending.”
According to Witherell, federal agencies have done well to honor funding commitments made before the Sequester, including projects provided to graduate students in order to help them perform the research necessary to acquire degrees. However, he also said decreased funding may establish a precedent of increasingly lower funding standards.
“If federal funding continues to be at a lower level in the future, these departments will reduce the number of graduate students admitted unless they can attract more research funding from nonfederal sources, like foundations or industry,” Witherell said.
Bowers said he hopes Congress will change its policy in the future and prioritize funding to important research that could have major global or national implications rather than cutting across the board, citing cancer treatment, cost-effective LEDs and electric cars as examples of worthwhile investments.
“What we need as a country are more jobs, and we need new technologies and people trained to the right skill set to execute that, and so there is a need to spend our money wisely,” Bowers said. “I think the competitive processes for finding the most exciting ideas out there in terms of new contracts [would be] a good way to do it.”
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of the Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.