Scientific research in Washington would be hard hit by fiscal cliff

By the Tri-City Herald and McClatchy staffNovember 27, 2012 

Washington, home to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington, is among the 10 states that would be hardest hit by a "fiscal cliff" cut of federal research and development money, according to a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The automatic spending cuts would reduce federal research and development funds by $57.5 billion over the next five years, a reduction of 8.4 percent, according to the study.

President Obama and congressional Republicans are negotiating to try to head off the so-called fiscal cliff -- the end of Bush-era tax cuts and the beginning of automatic spending cuts negotiated during the 2011 debt-ceiling debate.

Experts say the cliff could mean a new recession. Scientists say its effect could stunt innovation and the future of science in the United States.

In the Tri-Cities, automatic spending cuts not only could mean an 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in the Hanford nuclear reservation budget that totals more than $2 billion annually, but it also would hit the Department of Energy's national PNNL lab in Richland by an amount that's more difficult to determine.

PNNL conducts research with a $1 billion budget and 92 percent of that comes from the federal government directly. Some of the remaining 8 percent also comes indirectly from the federal government, including through use permits.

"It's hard to plan or say specifically how we will be impacted here at PNNL," said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller. "It's unclear at this point how those cuts will be distributed across programs and projects within each funding agency."

The lab's $1 billion budget includes money from several offices within the Department of Energy, as well as the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the National Institutes of Health and intelligence agencies.

Lab officials should know more as the January deadline for the cuts grows closer, but in the meantime they are making sure that science funding agencies, Congress and other decision makers understand the importance of national laboratories in solving critical national challenges, Koller said.

Work at PNNL includes enhancing the power grid, reducing dependence on imported oil, designing materials and chemicals to address energy issues in new ways and protecting the nation from acts of terrorism. All are priorities for the Obama administration and Congress.

The University of Washington also received about $1 billion in federal research grants in 2011, more than any other public university every year since 1974. Automatic cuts would create problems for faculty members seeking funds to maintain their active research programs, but they'd particularly create difficulties for scientists at the beginning of their careers, Mary Lidstrom, the university's vice provost for research, said in an interview.

Funding difficulties already discourage graduate students from pursuing careers in academia and research, she said, adding "If that situation becomes worse, I think the impact on the future of the country in terms of our innovation workforce will be devastating."

California, with its large university system and leading role in defense, energy and space exploration research, is the largest recipient of federal research dollars. It would also lose more than any state -- $11.3 billion in the first five years of the cutbacks, according to the study. Washington state could lose $1.7 billion in those years..

Other states high on the list for federal research money include Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida.

"It would absolutely devastate the American scientific community exactly at a time when other countries are investing tremendously," Alan Lesher, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of its journal, Science, said at the Capitol Hill briefing.

A report by the group said that even without the automatic cuts, spending caps already have begun to depress federal research and development funding. Estimated federal funding for research is currently at its lowest point since 2002, adjusted for inflation.

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