IOWA CITY (AP) — The University of Iowa’s top research administrator said he’s not keeping one eye the federal budget.
“Both eyes,” vice president for research Jordan Cohen said. “We watch it really 24-7.”
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office showed the federal government spent $1.1 trillion more than it took in during fiscal 2012. As policymakers face pressure to cut the budget deficit, they could look to the billions the federal government spends each year on research projects, many of which are on university campuses.
U of I collected $276.5 in federal support last year, much of which was earmarked for research and development projects. So-called sponsored spending at U of I — which includes federal support, state and local grants, and money from private organizations — totaled $438.1 million last year. That number has been stagnant in recent years, suggesting competition for outside funding already has grown more competitive, even before federal lawmakers have made serious progress to reduce federal spending.
Cohen estimates the number of federal research dollars available to universities will be lower in the next five to 10 years.
“What we’re faced with is most discretionary spending is in limbo,” Cohen said. “The Congress and the president will have to deal with deficit reduction, and I think it will have a big impact on research funding.”
Some cuts could come sooner, though. As part of a controversial deal to increase the United States’ debt limit last year, politicians agreed to cut more than $1 trillion from the federal budget. If policymakers don’t agree on how to do that by early next year, the cuts will be automatic. Most politicians’ discussion of those automatic cuts have been dominated by talk of protecting the military. The automatic cuts would mean about a 10 percent reduction in discretionary defense spending, so universities’ support from the U.S. Department of Defense — $12.8 million at UI last year — could diminish.
President Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and congressional leaders from both parties have warned about defense cuts, signaling they’ll strive for a compromise that will protect military spending, which already is much higher than any other country’s. The White House has said the cuts would be "deeply destructive” to national security.
At U of I, though, U.S. Department of Defense support is dwarfed by the $205 million the school brought in last year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Much of that money goes to medical research on U of I’s medical campus.
The federal government also supports work in so-called soft sciences and the humanities. Although those programs are much smaller than defense or medical research programs, they’re still being sized up for cuts. In a Des Moines Register interview in August, for instance, Romney said the National Endowment for the Arts — which funds grants for music and art programs — could be on the chopping block.
“No. 1 is eliminating certain programs,” Romney said in August, “there’s Obamacare, of course, that’s about $100 billion a year. But in addition, there’s PBS, Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts.”
UI English Professor Christopher Merrill criticized cuts like those. Merrill was appointed earlier this year to the National Council on the Humanities, which advises the National Endowment for the Humanities, similar to the National Endowment for the Arts, but with an emphasis on history, literature and philosophy.
“Add up the total budget of this agency and we spend twice that much every day in Afghanistan,” Merrill said. ” ... We’re not talking about a lot of money, but it is crucial in the scheme of things because these types of grants will give scholars access to materials that they might not be able to get to, to libraries, to buy a little time to do necessary research, to travel to interview people. But (the spending is) just a drop in the bucket.”
The numbers support Merrill’s sentiment.
The National Endowment for the Arts, which Romney targeted specifically in deficit talk, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Merrill’s group oversees, are each expected to receive more than $150 million from the federal government this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense requested $525.4 billion for this fiscal year, more than 1,700 times as much as those humanities and arts programs combined.
And while humanities research doesn’t usually produce the tangible results that medical or military research might, Merrill said it’s still important. For example, federal grants helped produce an online archive of poet Walt Whitman’s work, some of which endorses Western ideals and democracy.
“It’s available to the whole world,” Merrill said. “The very people who are wanting to cut this are also talking about spreading democracy. This is a pretty cheap way to spread democracy.”
Still, Romney isn’t anti-research.
“History shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology,” the Republican’s campaign material said.
In particular, much of his energy policy talks about developing new technologies to reduce the need for foreign energy.
Romney also has said he’d like to focus on research in and partnerships with the private sector.
U of I already has experience teaming up with the private sector. The U of I Research Foundation commercializes discoveries made at U of I through licensing, patents and investments from outside organizations. Director Zev Sunleaf said the organization keeps an eye on private industry to help officials identify which discoveries are marketable.
“Is it something that five people can use or 5 million? What is the industry moving toward? Is this game changing or something that falls in line with what people are doing?” Sunleaf said.
The U of I Research Foundation brought in $9.5 million in fiscal 2011, some of which was reinvested into research projects.
Cohen said government support is integral to making important research advances.
“We are developing new connections with industry, but for the kind of research that drives this country and which has always driven this country, private-sector research can never match what government funding has been able to do,” Cohen said.