Policy & Funding | Research

Report: Universities Anticipate 'Devastating Impact' of Sustained Cuts to Research Funding

Across-the-board cuts in federal spending have already had "immediate, detrimental effects" on research universities, including losses in personnel, a diminished capacity for purchasing equipment, a drop in productivity and cuts to research programs. And it's having a serious, negative impact on students as well, according to a new report.

The report, "Survey on Sequestration Effects: Selected Results from Private and Public Research Universities," was a joint effort of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and The Science Coalition. It involved survey data from 171 public and private research institutions in the United States.

Among the major findings:

  • A full 81 percent of respondents said sequestration had "immediate, detrimental effects on research activities and output on their campuses" since it began back in March;
  • 70 percent of the institutions surveyed have seen reductions in new research grants;
  • 70 percent have seen delays in research projects; and
  • 58 percent have experienced a negative impact on staffing.

According to the report, staff cuts have included:

  • Layoffs among permanent staff: 16 percent;
  • Reductions in permanent staff: 22 percent;
  • Layoffs among part-time and temporary staff: 20 percent;
  • Reductions in part-time and temporary staff: 30 percent;
  • Reductions in student positions: 31 percent; and
  • Reductions in postdoctoral fellow positions: 24 percent.

Those numbers don't tell the full story though. Uncertainty about the future is leading to secondary effects, including a loss of productivity among lead researchers as they scramble to understand the new situation and plan for the future.

According to one survey participant cited in the report: "Not only are we experiencing diminished funding overall and reduced budget periods for existing and new awards, but we are also observing a general loss in productivity as principal investigators, researchers, and research administrative staff scramble to interpret new agency limitations and figure out how to reallocate resources with a reduced budget without significantly changing scope."

Uncertainty is also rippling through the student population and causing some to reevaluate their career choices, even as the Obama administration is advocating for greater numbers of graduates in STEM disciplines.

Said one survey respondent: "These factors contribute to low morale for our research community, particularly among graduate students and junior faculty who are questioning career choices. Some graduate students have dropped out of programs this year or are considering leaving in favor of consulting, startups, and other non-academic careers."

The cuts have also led to a reduction in graduate student admissions among 23 percent of institutions reporting in.

Additional detrimental effects cited by survey respondents included:

  • Reductions in undergraduate research: 30 percent;
  • Reductions in equipment: 28 percent;
  • Delays in field work or experimental work: 38 percent;
  • Cancelled research projects: 35 percent; and
  • Cancelled field work or experimental work: 19 percent.

"The results from the sequestration survey are an early indicator of the devastating impact that sustained cuts to research and higher education will have on the economy and the United States' role as a global innovation leader," according to the report's authors. "Research university leaders from both public and private universities express deep concerns about both the short-term impacts on current research and the long-term effects on future research and the scientific enterprise."

The complete report is freely available in PDF form online.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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