Tom Still: Sequester puts research funds in peril

2013-03-03T11:00:00Z Tom Still: Sequester puts research funds in perilTOM STILL | Wisconsin Technology Council La Crosse Tribune

Embedded in the national debate over automatic cuts in the federal budget — the sequester — is a question that could hit Wisconsin harder than many states: What is Washington's role in fostering innovation?

The answer is vital to the state's academic research institutions, many of its entrepreneurs and the larger goal of making Wisconsin more competitive in the global economy.

Major research universities such as the UW-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin, academic health centers, small businesses driven by R&D and others are bracing for the effects of sequestration, or automatic spending cuts, to programs that have historically attracted federal dollars.

These programs finance basic research as well as applied research that spurs American innovation while creating new companies and jobs, which are the life's blood of the U.S. economy.

Unless Congress and the Obama administration pull off the "Jedi mind meld" the president envisioned Friday, rolling cuts will take place in the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Science Foundation. Estimates vary, but some experts fear two-thirds of all new research grants would be eliminated.

In a Feb. 27 letter to Wisconsin's two U.S. senators, UW System President Kevin Reilly predicted UW-Madison alone could lose about $35 million in research funding over the coming year. That's off a base of roughly $1 billion per year.

"The figure would be compounded by losses at all the institutions because every institution of the UW System receives NSF funding, which is scheduled for deep cuts," Reilly said. "Of equal concern is the fear that research agencies will slow down renewals and reduce the aggregate number of new awards that are approved. This will result in fewer grants approved, less research undertaken, and a reduced capacity to grow the economy or advance medical care."

The issue is more important to Wisconsin than most states because academic R&D is one of relatively few areas in the federal budget where the state performs well. Wisconsin boast a little more than 1.8 percent of the nation's population but it attracts nearly 2.2 percent of the nation's academic R&D spending. The state also fares well in attracting its share of Small Business Innovation Research grants, which are awarded by 11 different federal agencies to companies and researchers with the most promising commercial technologies.

Will all the gloom-and-doom take place overnight now that the March 1 deadline has passed? Not really. It will take some time for federal agencies to figure out where cuts will take place, and how soon, and Congress and Obama still face a March 27 deadline for passing a continuing resolution for the current fiscal year.

Just as the fiscal cliff debate before Jan. 1 resulted in some giant cans being kicked down the road, so might the latest sequester crisis.

However, the debate is so far missing a sense of bipartisan consensus that was evident even during last fall's presidential election. Republican Mitt Romney said one of the government's useful roles is fostering innovation while investing in technologies — power generation, fuel cells, nanotechnology and materials science — that spur economic growth. For his part, Obama has stressed the importance of alternative energy and related technologies and using two-year colleges to train workers in tech and health fields.

One of America's enduring advantages in a competitive world is its ability to invent and innovate. The marketplace can't pull out new ideas if they aren't there. Federal investment in R&D since World War II has been the seed corn for countless ideas, thousands of companies and millions of private-sector jobs that might not exist today if not for a commitment to basic research.

Wisconsin doesn't haul in a wealth of defense or Medicare dollars, at least compared to other states, but its R&D centers and entrepreneurs compete admirably for merit-based grants. That's an edge that could be lost if cuts over time fall disproportionately on research and development.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(10) Comments

  1. Seriously Now
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    Seriously Now - March 04, 2013 6:41 am
    Everyone goes down 10% with the sole exception of military and congressional salaries. The former I can understand; the latter I have no idea why. The reason for the latter is for the same reason booze and tobacco is low-taxed in the District of Columbia. Self-interest.
  2. ryeguy
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    ryeguy - March 03, 2013 10:55 pm
    With sequestration, if you have been paying attention, you will recall that it requires a 10% reduction in every line item. Period. Budget officers - whether the army chief of staff, the chairman of the joint chiefs, or a program manager for the Fish and Wildlife service - cannot move line items around. Everyone goes down 10% with the sole exception of military and congressional salaries. The former I can understand; the latter I have no idea why.

    As the president said, a dumb way to do it. You cannot cut your way to a balanced budget without eliminating the defense department. I challenge anyone to come up with $500 billion in easy cuts. I am all for simplifying the tax code, provided it remains a "progressive tax" in which those who benefit the most from a stable government, an up to date infrastructure, and border security pay the most as a per cent. That is fair. The current tax situation is social engineering that benefits the wealthy unfairly and hits workers unfairly.
  3. Redwall
    Report Abuse
    Redwall - March 03, 2013 9:45 pm
    Total BS. All they have to do is look for waste, which no-one seems to want to talk about.

    We are talking 2.5%; give me a break.
  4. rip
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    rip - March 03, 2013 6:43 pm
    This is joke there is no research in the USA.
  5. Richy
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    Richy - March 03, 2013 5:40 pm
    Yes they always paste the most important program as the one that is going to end or be reduced. As always more government fear mongering and you liberals believe it every time. The UW is just worried about its free rein on our tax dollars. I wonder how eliminating researching where turtles lay their eggs program is going to effect us. I suppose that most people don't know they lay them in the sand so we need a grant to enforce that theory.
  6. mocha1
    Report Abuse
    mocha1 - March 03, 2013 1:53 pm
    Many will argue that r and d jobs will be lost. again so what, if there is no payback for this r and d the grants are no more than a government welfare system, but paying incredibly high individual payments.
  7. mocha1
    Report Abuse
    mocha1 - March 03, 2013 1:37 pm
    Instead of just oozing raw emotion, that R and D will be cut at UW systems, any sane logical person would ask so what. What has been the benefit of all of these dollars. Is all of our tax dollars that are dumped into these programs getting any pay back, if not, cut them. This is one of the biggest issues with our government spending, once it starts, no one does any analysis to determine if it is doing any good, it is just assumed that it needs to be done. If our politicians were really stewards of our tax dollars and not prone to political games, we could easily find $85 billion and more in redundancy or waste. The Government itself reported $44billion in medicare fraud alone again last year. But unfortunately we always are threatened with teachers, firefighters, policeman will be fired and little old ladies will be left in the street to fend for themselves.
  8. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - March 03, 2013 1:06 pm
    The GOP's own governor Bobby Jindal calls the Republican Party "The Stupid Party."

    Cutting medical research, NASA, the FBI, energy research, teachers,.. yeah, all those cuts prove that the GOP is truly "The Stupid Party."

    Stupid is as stupid does.

    "Bobby Jindal: GOP must ‘stop being the stupid party’"
  9. Opus
    Report Abuse
    Opus - March 03, 2013 12:51 pm
    Tell that to people who will be laid off if this continues, LAXTEA.
  10. LAXTEA
    Report Abuse
    LAXTEA - March 03, 2013 12:27 pm
    Again, stop the drama. There are no "cuts" happening. Only a slight reduction in the out of control GROWTH of the federal budget.
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