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UMass sees research cuts if budget gridlock persists

“Our worry going forward is that this growth will be substantially slowed, which would have devastating consequences for the commonwealth and the country as a whole,” UMass President Robert L. Caret told the UMass Committee on Science, Technology and Research at a meeting in Boston on Wednesday.

Congress averted sequestration — a forced across-the-board cut in the federal budget — in December, but faces a new March 1 deadline to come up with a plan to make budget cuts or trigger automatic reductions in federal spending.

Federal funding accounts for nearly three-quarters of all UMass research spending. If sequestration occurs, this source could be cut by as much as 8 percent, or $32 million.

UMass Medical School Chancellor Dr. Michael Collins told the panel the university system already has been faced with declining research dollars.

“I think even in the best scenario, we will have difficulty retaining our current level of employment and our current level of students,” he said.

UMass R&D growth has already slowed dramatically. Total expenditures increased 1.8 percent, or about $11 million, to $597.5 million in fiscal year 2012. In 2011 the system saw $44 million in spending growth and $53.4 million growth in 2010.

UMass chancellors have voiced their concerns on funding cuts to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., according to Chairman Philip Johnson, who said the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy and the loss of Sen. John Kerry, who left the Senate to become secretary of state, have cost the state influence in Washington.

“We’ve lost about 80 years of seniority in the last three years for the state,” he said. “We’ve got some serious problems. So the question is, what can we do? We need to think of ways to work together.”

Federal dollars have funded UMass research into new materials to enhance performance of medical devices, reducing disparities in the treatment of cancer patients, finding methods to sustain fishery habitats, and creating new radar systems to better predict severe weather events.

“Their research and rate of discovery will definitely be affected if these cuts take place,” Caret said. “So our great hope is for a resolution to the federal budget impasse.”

But Collins believes the problem extends beyond the indecision caused by a gridlocked Congress.

“I think as a nation, we have a value construct problem. Sequestration, by any measure, is a blunt instrument to apply to a very complex problem. Very few families when faced with reduced income or difficult economic times would use such a blunt saber to quell their problems. You don’t reduce 10 percent off of food and 10 percent off of medicine equally. You make a much greater cut when there is a discretionary construct in place,” Collins said.

“If the federal government is going to be making cuts and we’re looking at $30 million here compared to the huge spending in other areas, it should not be research taking these cuts,” he said.

Deedee Sun writes for Boston University’s Statehouse program.

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