Don't throw science over 'fiscal cliff,' experts warn

Loss of innovation could be catastrophic, especially for the research-rich Triangle

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 26, 2012 

A file photo shows Joseph DeSimone, center right, discusses a polymer chemistry experiment with graduate students in a lab on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC. Scientists and inventors such as DeSimone will be keeping an eye on the budget deal-making in Washington over the next month, because if negotiators fail to steer the nation away from the fiscal cliff, automatic spending cuts will chop back federal support for scientific research.

SHAWN ROCCO — News & Observer file photo

— Scientists and inventors such as Joe DeSimone will be keeping an eye on the budget deal-making in Washington over the next month because if negotiators fail to steer the nation away from the fiscal cliff, automatic spending cuts will chop back federal support for scientific research.

“The lifeblood of this country is research and the economic development that flows from that,” said DeSimone, an inventor with his name on more than 130 patents and an entrepreneur who has launched several spinoff companies. “This economy is driven by innovation.”

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans are negotiating to try to head off the so-called fiscal cliff – the end of Bush-era tax cuts and the beginning of automatic spending cuts negotiated during the 2011 debt-ceiling debate. Scientists say its impact could stunt innovation and the future of science in the United States.

Federally supported science, research and innovation has resulted in many of the benefits society takes for granted, such as vaccines and lasers, said Steven Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania, speaking at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill.

DeSimone, who holds chaired professorships in chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill and chemical engineering at N.C. State University, said the possibilities are so catastrophic that political leaders will have to work out a deal.

“We’ll take a big hit if the research side gets hammered,” said DeSimone, whose work involves applying lithographic fabrication technology from the computer industry to design new medicines and vaccines.

His lab alone typically receives about $2.5 million annually in federal research funding from institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, compared to about $1.5 million in state and private support.

$57.5 billion cut looms

The automatic spending cuts would reduce federal research and development funds by $57.5 billion over the next five years, a reduction of 8.4 percent, according to a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The impact could be wide ranging, from cancer research to the development of new energy. It could also reduce the recruitment and training of the next generation of scientists.

California, with its large university system and leading role in defense, energy and space exploration research, is the largest recipient of federal research dollars. It would also lose more than any state – $11.3 billion in the first five years of the cutbacks, according to the study. Other states high on the list for federal research funding include Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and Florida.

“It would absolutely devastate the American scientific community exactly at a time when other countries are investing tremendously,” Alan Lesher, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of its journal, Science, said at the Capitol Hill briefing.

A report by the group said that even without the automatic cuts, spending caps already have begun to depress federal research and development funding. Estimated federal funding for research is currently at its lowest point since 2002, adjusted for inflation.

At stake in the Triangle

In the region around Research Triangle Park, the federal research budget is a huge economic engine. With nearly $546 million in federal research and development funding in 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill ranked ninth in the country. With $514 million, Duke University in Durham, a few miles down the road, was 13th.

Meanwhile, N.C. State is the only university in the country with two National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers. Together, the three campuses formed the backbone of scientific discovery that fuels Research Triangle Park, home to large biotechnology, pharmaceutical and information technology companies.

But other science hubs around the country also would suffer if Congress and the White House can’t agree on a way back from the cliff.

“There is hope, but at this time we must be prepared in case this hits as scheduled in January,” University of Missouri Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Duncan said in an email to faculty last week.

The university estimates that it could lose about $16.7 million per year in federal research grants, or 8.4 percent of its 2011 federal research awards of $196.6 million.

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