Inside Report: Federal sequester painful for colleges

Without scientific research, there would be no Internet, no internal combustion engine to power our vehicles and no vaccines for diseases including polio, which ravaged children for thousands of years.

Because much of the world’s research is conducted on university campuses, it follows that university leaders were pleased when President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan budget deal last month that eases spending cuts and put an end to the so-called sequester — $84.5 billion in automatic spending reductions for 2013 triggered when Congress failed to compromise on a deal that would cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years.

The across-the-board cuts drastically reduced the flow of federal money on which universities such as LSU and Southern rely to carry out academic research that yields scientific advances.

Louisiana education leaders say the hurt was immediate — LSU lost more than $15 million — but the pain could last into 2014 and beyond.

The sequester meant that agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, stopped awarding grants, delayed funding for projects and generally kept researchers in limbo from March until the end of 2013.

LSU’s network of campuses totaled roughly $245 million in research expenditures last year. It’s an amount some within the university think should double before LSU can be considered an elite institution.

In recent years, LSU’s research funds have begun to dry up as state budget cuts have led to faculty leaving and taking their grant money with them.

Additionally, President F. King Alexander said the sequester cost the LSU system another $15 million at a time when the university is trying to ramp up research in environmental science, coastal studies, biomedical sciences, energy, digital media and natural/renewable resources.

“The sequester really limited our ability to collect funds provided through the granting agencies,” Alexander said. “They were sitting on their hands. It means we had less money for our researchers to put into growing areas like coastal research and global warming.”

Even with the sequester officially over, college leaders are worried about what they are calling the “innovation deficit.”

“It really hurts our outcomes — solving health epidemics, purifying water. ... There are lots of outcomes we will not see because the research did not happen,” Alexander said.

The sequester’s economic impact also is being felt at LSU’s Agricultural Center, where B. Rogers Leonard, associate vice chancellor for research, said half the money the AgCenter gets from the federal government is used to pay salaries of research faculty.

Leonard explained the federal money flows to the AgCenter in a virtual pipeline, where any disruption has the potential to have long-term consequences.

“We’ve been able to manage and fill the gaps, but it’s going to have to be monitored throughout 2014,” Leonard said. “We haven’t suffered any massive cash-flow problems, but I won’t say that we won’t get to a point where we start asking people not to come to work.”

Southern University’s campuses also felt some pain. Michael Stubblefield, Southern’s vice chancellor for research, explains the sequester drastically reduced opportunities for researchers who are called on to lend their expertise to a number of federal projects, from environmental research to soil testing and work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Additionally, the sequester cuts hurt Southern’s new Small Business Development Center, which provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses.

The sequester “had a real impact on the sort of things universities do,” Stubblefield said.

“Universities are more than just rote learning. They’re about research and opportunities and creating something exciting and new.”

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau.