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Potentially next on the chopping block in United States budget cuts: research funding for universities.

Of the many aspects of government spending up for debate in the current 2012 fiscal year budget negotiations, the continued funding for grant-giving organizations such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation could be cut — a concerning prospect for Penn administrators.

Eighty percent of Penn’s research funding comes from the federal government, and three quarters of that money comes from NIH alone, Vice Provost for Research Steve Fluharty said. “We are very dependent on the funding from NIH,” Fluharty said. “We are very concerned … we don’t know exactly yet which cuts will be made.”

On Sept. 15, the House Appropriations Committee announced a continuing resolution to keep the government functioning while they discuss the FY2012 budget, but when a final appropriations bill is passed, it could be bad news for Penn.

Bill Andresen, Penn’s associate vice president for Federal Affairs, commented that when it comes to the fate of federal research funding, “no one knows.”

Andresen added that one appropriations bill — out of Congress’s Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies subcommittee — will determine funding for NIH and all student-aid programs and “is going to influence Penn the most.”

Looking forward to 2013 is where it becomes daunting for Penn officials. “In the immediate future, it is going to remain the status quo, but as the debt ceiling discussion continues, it will certainly be an issue,” Fluharty said. “We are hearing many things, some of which are quite scary.”

Andresen explained that much depends on a bipartisan “supercommittee” of 12 congressmen. These legislators are responsible for finding ways — either through spending cuts or tax increases — to reduce the U.S. deficit by $1.2 to $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

“If they are able to reach an agreement those cuts don’t go into an affect until 2013. In the long term, if they do not [reach an agreement], there are across-the-board [automatic] cuts which would have a large impact,” Andresen said.

Among these automatic cuts is a “$55-billion cut to all non-defense discretionary spending which would include funding for NIH,” Fluharty said.

Fluharty describes this as the worst case scenario, but “we should be prepared for the worst.”

Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, is when the supercommittee is scheduled to present its deficit-reduction plan. Afterward, Congress has one month to consider its recommendations and vote on the plan. If either of these things do not occur, the wide-range of cuts will ensue.

Cuts to these programs would be “very short sighted,” Fluharty said. He hopes that congress and the president will be committed to “advancing new knowledge, saving lives, looking at alternative energy technology.”

In terms of what the University will do if federal funding is decreased, the “important thing is not what we cut, it is what do we do to support programs through non-federal funds … the most important adaptation that we can do as a University … is to diversify our funding base,” Fluharty said.

But while diversification can have benefits, Office of Governmental and Community Affairs Director Dawn Maglicco Deitch noted a disadvantage of having a majority of funding sourced by private companies. Private companies often invest in research projects geared toward their own industry rather than researchers’ interests.

He also stressed that Penn would “have to be very strategic in our internal support until they can rely on external funding again.”

Professors are also worried about the fate of projects funded by the government.

“I am always concerned when funding for research is cut from the federal budget,” Bioengineering professor Jason Burdick, a recipient of NIH and NSF funding, wrote in an email. “This funding is extremely important in maintaining a high level of research activity by many academic institutions.”

Abraham Shaked, director of the Penn Transplant Center, is concerned as an NIH-funded researcher. “As a citizen I do understand that there should be allocation based on priorities, and what the country needs,” Shaked wrote in an email, adding that “one would disagree with putting more money in places that it may be wasted … such as wars in middle of nowhere… while cutting our research budget.”

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