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Federal cuts place UC Merced research funds in jeopardy

  • Merced Sun-Star
  • Published Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at 12:09 p.m.

One long-term effect of deep federal budget cuts could be that some research projects won't get done, at California's UC Merced administrator warned Tuesday.

Additionally, the competitive federal research grants will become even more difficult for faculty to attain, said Sam Traina, the university's vice chancellor for research.

UC Merced and Merced College will see reductions in financial aid, he said, adding to the burden on students and their families.

"I think some research might stall, and the long-term effect is that there will be some research that simply won't get done because it won't get funded," Traina said.

Sequestration cuts, across-the-board funding reductions for government agencies, went into effect March 1. They are meant to help trim the nation's more than $16 trillion debt.

Traina said the cuts to research are being figured out in Washington, D.C., but for the most part, every agency that awards grants will have to make a 5 percent to 7 percent reduction before the end of the fiscal year.

About 50 percent of UC Merced's research funds come from federal grants, he said. "The whole 50 percent is now at risk," he said.

But the form the cuts will take remains uncertain.

For example, the National Science Foundation, which is UC Merced's largest grant provider, is not going to reduce funding to existing grants. But it will decrease the number of grants it gives out, Traina explained.

The agency will award about 1,000 fewer grants, he said, and that means the competition for the remaining funding will be much more intense.

The National Institutes of Health is one of those agencies that's reducing some grants, Traina said. For example, he said, there's a professor at UC Merced who will see a 55 percent reduction in funding beginning in April, he said.

There are other granting agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Defense, that are determining what their strategy will be, Traina said.

"All options are available for them right now," he said. "The bottom line is that we know that is going to be much more difficult for faculty at all universities to get research funds. They will have to submit more proposals."

Positions ultimately could be affected. Some of the federal research funds are used to pay for graduate students and salaries of people doing research, Traina said.

"It's not uncommon for an employee to be paid 100 percent from a federal grant," he said. "If the grant is completely eliminated, obviously that source is gone. Universities are trying to find ways to provide a short-time safety net, but we can't do it forever."

UC Merced has notified all professors of the situation and is working with them on a case-by-case basis. To this point, Traina said, only one professor has been affected.

The sequestration cuts don't just target research funding.

Diana Ralls, director of financial aid at UC Merced, said the school is experiencing an $18,000 cut in federal work-study funding, which provides an opportunity for students to work on campus or off campus.

The university will have to absorb a $20,000 cut to its federal supplemental educational opportunity grant, which goes to the lowest-income students, she said.

Both cuts go into effect next school year -- 2013-14, Ralls said.

UC Merced won't be able to expand its work-study program, she said. The school had planned to add five to eight work-study positions next year.

The campus has a little more than 80 students who are employed through the work-study program, Ralls said. They work less than 20 hours a week.

Merced College won't see any cuts to its $464,548 work-study budget, said Robin Shepard, spokesman for the college. That budget covers 323 work-study positions, he said.

However, he said, the college will endure a $30,000 cut to its $385,000 supplemental educational opportunity funding that aids low-income students.

If sequestration continues, it could affect Pell Grants in 2015, Ralls said. Those grants also are based on need.

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