Questions for Clyde Briant

What does the fiscal cliff mean for research?

December 13, 2012  |  Media Contact: Kevin Stacey |  401-863-3766
The so-called “fiscal cliff” — an increase in income tax rates, expiration of many tax benefits and automatic federal spending cuts known collectively as sequestration — still looms as a possibility come January 2. Unless a deal is reached, universities across the country will face unprecedented cuts in federal funding, including cuts to research and development funding. Kevin Stacey spoke with Clyde Briant, vice president for University research, about the implications of the fiscal cliff.

If no deal is reached, how would the fiscal cliff affect federal research funding?

It could trigger sweeping cuts to agencies across the federal government, including agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and others that provide the vast majority of the nation’s research and development funding. These are considerable, across-the-board cuts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that federal research and development spending nationwide could be cut by at least $50 billion over five years. Research universities all depend on those funds to support faculty, staff, postdocs, and graduate students, as well as to provide for equipment and facilities. If the level of support drops as dramatically as is called for under sequestration, it would profoundly change the way in which universities have to approach their research endeavors.

What are the impacts on research at Brown specifically?

Research is a major part of our mission at Brown and federal support is very important to us. It’s impossible at this point to say exactly how we’ll be affected, except to say that the impact would be substantial. Our life and physical sciences are highly dependent on federal funding, as well as our social sciences with projects like populations studies. In 2012, we spent $149 million in federal research funding. Under the automatic cuts, Brown could experience a decrease of up to $13 million in federal research funding. That would translate roughly into 25 fewer NIH awards and 11 fewer NSF awards. But we’d also stand to lose funding from other agencies as well — Department of Defense, NASA, National Endowment for the Humanities, and others.

If no compromise is reached, what will life be like here on Jan. 2?

In the immediate short term, we have no indication that funds for existing projects are suddenly going away on January 2. So in that way, a fiscal “cliff” might be the wrong analogy. It will be over months that cuts will begin and we’ll really start to get an idea what the impact might be. At this point, policy analysts speculate that cuts will begin in the form of reductions in the number of new grants funded. Following that, they may begin reducing out-year funding for existing projects. The last resort would be cutting existing grants altogether. But, again, it’s hard to be sure at this point how things will play out. We’re in uncharted territory.

What would you say are the economic implications of this, both in Rhode Island and beyond?

I do worry about the long-term impacts on economic development if the cuts are as severe and sustained as is possible. At a very basic level, research funding has an economic impact through salaries and support for faculty, staff, graduate students, and postdocs, who spend their money in the community. Cuts there certainly have the potential for local economic impact. But beyond that, universities are great producers of ideas. Those ideas are the economic generators of tomorrow. In Rhode Island there are 25 companies with more than 450 employees founded by Brown alumni, faculty, and staff or based on technology developed at Brown. Our Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation brings in several million dollars per year in federal grants. They’re doing the basic molecular science that holds incredible potential for new materials and technologies that could lead to the next generation of batteries for electric cars or a better way to detect and treat cancer. It seems to me a mistake to try to cure our fiscal ills by sabotaging those investments in our economic future.

What can be done about it?

We’ve been working with our colleagues at universities across the nation to make sure that we are conveying to legislators the importance of the work we do, both in terms of economic impact and societal good. When you think about projects like the Brown Institute for Brain Science, which is developing groundbreaking health technologies and receives substantial federal support, the importance of research and development becomes crystal clear. We know that some belt tightening is in order, but such sweeping, indiscriminate cuts are not the way to do it. We will continue to drive that point home with our elected leaders.

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