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Ohio universities brace for sequester cuts to research

UD, WSU among 15 Ohio schools already impacted.

In his lab at Wright State University, Thomas Brown is moving closer to understanding why some babies are born premature — cutting-edge research that has the potential to save the lives of babies and their mothers.

But Brown, who has a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the underlying factors that cause pre-eclampsia and pregnancy-related disorders, faces uncertainty about the funding that makes his lab work possible.

He’s not alone. Sequestration, the across-the-board cuts that automatically went into effect March 1 when Congress did not reach a deal to avoid them, is set to drain more than a billion from the federal organizations that fund research. The impact for public universities in Ohio is estimated at $95 million, according to ScienceWorksforU.S., a new campaign launched by the Association of American Universities.

While it is unclear for now how the cuts will be implemented, officials caution that sequestration could have a long-term impact — and that could include stalling important research, such as development of a universal flu vaccine capable of treating all strains of the virus.

“People like to think that the things that may be impacted are things that may not make a difference, but that’s not the truth,” said Dr. William Ball, vice president for research at the University of Cincinnati. “Promising research is potentially going to be affected.”

The Ohio State University has already seen cuts to grants for cancer and infection disease research, said Carol Whitacre, vice president of OSU’s Office of Research. OSU estimates it will see a cut of $13 million in fiscal year 2013 and $14 million for 2014. UC is also bracing for reductions. The university is at the forefront in research on strokes, a leading cause of death in the US. UC estimates its impact at $17 million, some of which could be years away.

“What people need to understand is that research is their future,” Ball said. The cuts, he said, are”personal” and “not just something that could happen to that institution across town.”

 ‘Not… overnight’

With questions hanging over their heads about how the cuts will be made, university officials are holding out hope that leaders in Washington, D.C., will come to an agreement to restore funding. Without a deal, new grants could be eliminated, funding could disappear in the last year of projects or cuts could be made uniformly.

“It’s very difficult to know what the impact is going to eventually be, because of the fact that we’re not going to see it overnight,” Ball said.

Some of the impact has already been seen. University of Dayton Research Institute Director John Leland has said the uncertainty of sequestration has caused some customers to already cut spending and postpone decisions on projects.

The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have not yet announced how they will deal with sequestration. But the NSF said it anticipates reducing research grants by approximately 1,000 and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has said “hundreds and hundreds” of grants will not be awarded.

Collins recently said sequestration threatens 20,000 jobs nationwide with programs it funds. That could mean patients are turned away from clinical trials, it could deter a generation of promising scientists and it has already slowed progress on developing a universal vaccine for all flu strains. With a 5.1 percent reduction to its budget, which amounts to $1.6 billion, he said the NIH will be doing its best to minimize harm done.

“It is a paradoxical thing that we are both at time of remarkable and almost unprecedented scientific opportunity and we’re also at a time in the United States of unprecedented threat to momentum for scientific progress,” Collins said.

Researchers worry that the impact of the cuts will be felt for years to come, said Robert Fyffe, vice president for research at Wright State University. Wright State does about $50 million in sponsored research annually, and half of that is federally funded.

“It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on because it’s very complex. Things are still in flux,” Fyffe said.

“You can see that it will have an impact on what we do, how we do it, who we employ to do it and how quickly we can get it done,” Fyffe said. “What I think will be difficult over the years will be maintaining the moral of anyone who is involved in research and that may be just as important as the dollar value.”

‘Haven’t reduced… the motivation’

Local university officials said they will look for ways to make up for the loss of funds so that research will not be harmed.

Grants fund everything from plastic gloves, to equipment to the pay for graduate assistants, said Brown, professor and vice chair for research and the department of neuroscience, cell biology and physiology and The Program in Microbiology and Immunology.

Brown’s research assistant, Renee Albers, said she is optimistic sequestration will not be in effect for the long-term. Albers, a master’s student in microbiology and immunology, said working in a lab is an eye-opening experience and important to building toward a career.

“You can really see that this could really help people,” she said. “What we’re doing is amazing.”

The 24-year-old will be paid by the grant in the final years of her biomedical sciences Ph.D. studies.

Brown said he saw a reduction to a grant payment he received in March, but he is making adjustment to ensure the loss does not slow the progress of his project. Brown said he likely won’t accept undergraduate or high school students in his lab this summer, which he typically does to expose young people to science.

“We haven’t reduced the effort that we put in or the motivation that we have,” Brown said. “We’re going to get to where we’re going, because it’s important. It’s important for those pregnant women and those little babies.”

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