From NIH to Nada? The Fiscal Cliff and Federal Research Funding

In the last few weeks, we went over a cliff, survived it, were confused by our survival, and headed right back into heated debates about the federal budget and its spending. While Wall Street and Main Street certainly had their fair share of press, and Congressional spokespeople worked overtime to explain what the fiscal cliff (and our journey over it) meant for individual taxes or small business, the Ivory Tower got relatively little press. What did the cliff mean for colleges and universities?

It turns out, the fiscal cliff had some potentially dire consequences for higher education research. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Under sequestration, most aspects of federal spending relating to higher education would face reductions of either 8.2 percent (for discretionary programs) or 7.6 percent (for mandatory programs), including appropriations to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, according to a September report from the Office of Management and Budget.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) provide an astonishing amount of support to research universities and colleges, support graduate fellowships, research opportunities for undergraduates, and much more.

According to a Chronicle article, “‘The report ‘confirms the worst,’ said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents leading research institutions. Sequestration, he added, ‘would have a terrible short- and long-term impact on the nation’s investments in scientific research and education, investments that are essential for long-term economic growth and prosperity.’”

“For top tier research institutions, a significant portion of their research is federally funded, making the sequestration cuts a potentially devastating blow. “

I am curious why we as citizens, concerned with the common good, weren’t a bit more worried about the possibility of massive reductions to research supporting organizations. For top tier research institutions, a significant portion of their research is federally funded, making the sequestration cuts a potentially devastating blow. According to Howard J. Federoff in a Washington Post commentary, “National Institutes of Health funding supports research on cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS and other projects that prevent disease and reduce suffering. At the George Washington University, Georgetown University and Howard University, NIH funding totals more than $134 million, with overall federal research funding exceeding $200 million.”

My question is simple: why doesn’t this worry us? Why doesn’t the NPR article citing the possibility of a second round of fiscal fights in March of 2013, and claiming that “other programs, especially the federal funding research universities rely on, could still be subject to cuts in the fiscal cliff showdown 2.0, come this Spring” fill us with fear?

Perhaps the danger feels obsolete. For many of us, medical research funding, scientific exploration funding, or humanities funding feel like questions for grant writers holed up in conference rooms or offices furiously typing away. We may not know where the money comes from to test a synthesized molecule, patent a new immunotherapy, or better diagnose the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. We may not even be sure that we ought to devote public resources in this extent to research.

But my fear is not that fiscal conservatives and liberals will disagree about research funding; it is that we will not sufficiently discuss it. In the problem of the fiscal cliff, and the possibility of further cuts in March, or next January, or even sometime further in the future, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what we believe federal resources should support. In restructuring a budget that (we hope) is both fiscally sustainable and in pursuit of justice, we should be thinking about research funding.

We should be thinking about Pell Grants, about ethanol subsidies, about the National Endowment for the Humanities and the highway repairs in Nebraska or Iowa. The federal budget, though unwieldy, represents our beliefs about the proper role of government: what it should support, and to what extent.

To focus so intently upon taxes as they apply to individuals, businesses or families is to miss the bigger picture of the budget, and the opportunity we have to confirm and adjust our commitments to its contents.

For my part, I want to keep the acronyms: NIH, NEH, NSF, IMLS…

But more than that, I want us to choose them.

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt