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Sequester would deal blow to UC Davis

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From page A1 | February 28, 2013 |

If automatic federal spending cuts kick in on Friday, programs affecting UC Davis researchers, students and health care providers would soon take a swift hit, but Jodi Nunnari looks around her laboratory and worries about other, far-reaching consequences, too.

The so-called “sequester” would slash an estimated $1.2 trillion in federal spending from 2013 to 2021. Most individual programs will face across-the-board cuts of 7.6 to 9.6 percent. Medicare would receive a 2 percent cut.

Because the Office of Management and Budget has not provided federal agencies with direction on how to make cuts, it’s unclear what the full extent of the impact would be on a UC system that relies on federal dollars to support more than half of its research.

“The suddenness of that is just a disaster for research,” said Nunnari, a professor of cellular and molecular biology whose lab employs a group of eight postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

Cuts in National Institutes of Health funding likely would mean she would have to let someone go, she said Wednesday, or not replacing others when they leave.

More disturbing for Nunnari: NIH has announced it would reduce the number of competitive grants that it would award — an additional setback for young researchers, at a time when just one in six grants are funded, and a potential deterrent for those considering a career in basic research.

“The results of this would be to kill a generation of scientists,” she said. “If you don’t get a grant, you can’t do research. If you can’t do research, you can’t get promoted. You can’t make it.”

According to a UC Office of the President report, researchers already have been seeing significantly less federal funding — grant funds are down 22 percent ($320 million) from the same time last year — perhaps because federal agencies are conserving cash to prepare for future cuts.

Federal grants provide the backbone for much of UCD’s research. In 2011-12, UCD researchers attracted $400 million in grants from the U.S. government.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the NIH, provided the most funding — $195 million — followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ($56 million) and National Science Foundation ($48 million).

UCD tallied a record $750 million in grants during the fiscal year. That’s in part because state funding rebounded sharply, to $139 million during 2011-12 compared to $60 million two years earlier.

For the 2013-14 school year, the Pell Grant program would go untouched under the sequester — the program could face deep cuts in subsequent years, UCOP warns — but other forms of aid would be reduced. UC students receive more than $1 billion in federal aid.

In arguing its case to the public, the Obama administration estimates that 9,600 low-income students in California could lose financial aid and 3,690 fewer students will get work-study jobs.

Medicaid is exempt from the sequester, but the UCD Medical Center faces an estimated $4.4 million reduction in Medicare payments, according to chief financial officer Tim Maurice.

“The people in Washington, D.C., seem to think that they can keep cutting provider payments and not have an impact on patient services,” Maurice said, “but sooner or later it will.”

UC President Mark Yudof on Tuesday sent a letter to California’s congressional delegation, urging a “redoubled” effort to reach a deal halting the cuts.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said in a statement Wednesday that the UCD community would be “especially hard-hit by the thoughtless cuts that would happen if sequestration moves forward.”

“I encourage every student in the UC, CSU and community college systems to mobilize their friends and family and make it clear to Congress that sequestration is a disaster for higher education,” he said.

Among the recent discoveries from Nunnari’s lab is the structure of dynamin, a protein involved in passing signals between nerve cells. Understanding how these proteins work could lead to new ways to treat nervous disorders or other conditions.

Marijn Ford, a postdoctoral scholar, and a Harvard University researcher mapped the crystal structure of the protein over about four years, but Nunnari said it took another 10 before that to build the framework that helped make their success possible.

During that time, funding for the continuing NIH grant hasn’t kept pace with inflation. The agency’s budget has remained flat over the last half decade.

Meanwhile, campus charges to grants have gone up. So have wages and health care costs for graduate students, Nunnari said. Those and other costs send researchers seeking more grants, each of which comes with its own set of expectations and reporting demands attached.

“I worry every day about how I’m going to pay them,” Nunnari said, speaking about her team. “And now an arbitrary cut like (the sequester)? How do I plan for that?”

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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