Grant funds threatened by sequester

Institute predicts lower research, exploring financial alternatives

With over 70 percent of MIT’s yearly research funding coming from the federal government, the federal budget sequester will have a significant impact on research at the Institute.

The sequester, a set of across-the-board cuts on certain defense and non-defense spending categories, was meant as an unwanted consequence to encourage Congress to make a budget deal to prevent it. Since Congress failed to make a deal, the cuts began March 1.

Yesterday, Stand With Science and Global Education and Career Development hosted a panel to discuss the effect of the federal budget sequestration on science research at MIT. The panelists included Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s Vice President for Research, William B. Bonvillian, Director of the MIT Washington Office, and Samuel O. Brinton G, MIT student and Executive Director of Stand With Science, who helped moderate the discussion.

According to Bonvillian, Barack Obama’s FY14 budget proposal, made in April, would end the sequester, but he said it is unlikely to be approved.

Zuber said that Defense R&D will be cut by 7.3 percent, while non-defense R&D will be cut by 5.1 percent, though the National Science Foundation will only experience a 2.1 percent cut.

She said that agencies are still deciding an implementation strategy since many did not plan for how to deal with the cuts, expecting the sequester to not take place. “The lack of guidance from agencies is causing frustration among some faculty,” said Zuber.

Less funding for research

Zuber predicted “a decrease in the research volume on campus of about 3 to 4 percent” due to the sequester. The federal government provided $473 million in funds for research on MIT’s campus in FY12.

Harder hit, Zuber said, would be MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, which received $844 million in federal support last year and focuses on research for defense applications.

MIT administrators are exploring ways to keep research at MIT thriving even as the cuts threaten more grant applications.

“The typical length of time for a [National Science Foundation] proposal is three years. If you are in year 1 or year 2, there is a high chance that your funding this year could be reduced,” Zuber said. But the “unlucky people who are in the third year” face the additional possibility that their funding won’t be renewed at all. “The provost and I and the deans are trying to think of ways to invest funds in order for the PIs to keep their proposals as competitive as possible.”

She said she hadn’t met a “smart graduate student who is now on the street” just yet, but that very serious effects of the sequester may be seen in the future.

“The effects of this erosion might not be seen a week or even a year from now, but ten years from now they will be greatly seen,” Zuber said.

Zuber feels optimistic that MIT can deal with the cuts better than other institutions. “We’re doing more to help our researchers than any of the other plans I’ve seen for the other universities. There’s going to be a smaller pie, and we’re going to need a larger share of the pie.”

“We have been out in front in going to the private sector [for funding]. I think we’re way ahead of our peers,” Zuber said.

Still, Zuber and Bonvillian emphasized the importance of reaching out to lawmakers. “If we were to ignore the situation in Washington, it would be devastating.”

~25 laid off from C-Mod team

One of the most prominent projects to face the loss of federal funding is the Alcator C-Mod experiment at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which will announce layoffs of around a third of its 70-person staff today, according to director Earl Marmar. The experiment itself, one of only a handful of U.S. plasma facilities, has been slated for shutdown by the Department of Energy’s budget proposal for FY 2014, although this has yet to be approved by Congress.

Most of the 25 students working at Alcator C-Mod already have enough data to finish their theses, according to PSFC director Miklos Porkolab. These students are mostly fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-year PhD students, Marmar said, since the group stopped taking in new students more than a year ago.

According to Porkolab, MIT is working hard to make sure to make sure that graduate students working on the project can finish their degrees, possibly with help from similar research facilities.

Zuber said there are efforts to work with the Department of Energy to consider ways to continue to fund C-Mod, but the discussions are limited since some of the relevant officials have not yet been confirmed to their positions.

Leon Lin contributed reporting.