Sequestration leads to loss of research funds for UNC
Impending federal budget cuts could mean more than a loss of research money for the University — they could also slow the development of life-saving drugs.
The 2011 Budget Control Act mandated that if deficits were not cut by $1.2 trillion, spending cuts equal to that amount — known as sequestration — would be enacted the next fiscal year. Sequestration went into effect March 1.
Vice Chancellor for Research Barbara Entwisle said that with the cuts, UNC stands to loose an estimated $28 million.
She added that about three-fourths of UNC’s research budget comes from federal funding.
“Clearly this cut will hurt, just as it will hurt every university,” Entwisle said. “It’s happening all over the country. “Right now we’re trying to get ahead of the situation.”
Research grants are won through competitions, most commonly through the National Institutes of Health. Entwisle said the NIH has announced that although it will not cut existing awards, it will reduce the amount of awards that it grants.
“These (researchers) are people who are in the top 10 percent of the competition who aren’t sure if they’ll be getting their grants,” Entwisle said.
One of these researchers is Jian Liu, a professor in the UNC School of Pharmacy, who received NIH funding in 2009 for his work on creating a synthetic version of the blood-thinner heparin.
The funding cycle ended in January, and Liu said if he doesn’t get additional money, residual funds will only support his work for another six months.
Liu’s work stems from the 2008 disaster in which tainted heparin imported from China killed almost 100 patients and affected hundreds more.
He said if he is able to develop this version, the U.S. will no longer need to import heparin, therefore lowering its risk of potential contamination.
He submitted an application for an additional four- to five-year grant this year, and scored in the seventh percentile of applicants.
“In normal years, seventh percentile is almost certain to get funding, but we’re not certain this year,” Liu said.
If he does not get additional funding, his research on heparin will have to stop.
“They need to identify which is wasteful and which is essential spending,” he said. “I feel that research is essential for U.S. public health.”
Entwisle said other UNC researchers face the same uncertainty — many have not been told whether they will continue to receive funding.
“If you take a major cut, you will have to do some soul searching and hard planning to accommodate the cut,” she said.
Bill Kier, chairman of the biology department, said that although his department has not yet felt a huge impact, the cuts have raised concerns among faculty.
“So much of the reputation of the department and of the University is dependent on the quality of the research and scholarship that’s done here,” he said. “Anything that threatens funding threatens the reputation of the University.”
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