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Thursday January 20th

Research centers fight to avoid more budget cuts

Clinical Coordinator for Occupational Therapy at UNC Hospitals Sydney Thornton creates a dressing for a burn patient. She has been an occupational therapist for 43 years.
Buy Photos Clinical Coordinator for Occupational Therapy at UNC Hospitals Sydney Thornton creates a dressing for a burn patient. She has been an occupational therapist for 43 years.

Specifically, more space for her patients at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, where Schmits is a nurse manager. And more space for their cutting-edge technology that treats 1,400 burn victims a year.

“If we had an unlimited budget, the first thing I would do is expand space for the (intensive care unit) rooms and increase the number of beds in the clinic,” Schmits said. “We have a lot of equipment here, and we’re tight on space.”

As the UNC-system Board of Governors finalizes the budgets for each campus, it’s research institutions like the burn center that are once again on the chopping block for budget cuts.

In May, the N.C. General Assembly proposed $13.1 million in cuts to UNC-system centers and institutes. After months of compromise, the centers and institutes narrowly escaped without the $13.1 million cut.

Now the UNC-system Board of Governors is debating slashing even more money.

In the 2014-15 state budget, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory Aug. 7, lawmakers included a provision requiring the board to consider taking away $15 million from the system’s centers and institutes and putting it toward the distinguished professorships and its strategic directions initiative.

During the Board of Governors Budget and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, Andrea Poole, an assistant vice president for finance, said they will discuss the potential cuts during its meeting in September.

“We need to set a date certain by which we’re going to reach this decision,” said board member W.G. “Champ” Mitchell. “This is one of those things that people can drag out forever. It is a hot button with people who appropriate our money and we can’t let it drag.”

Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, said the frequency of the proposed cuts doesn’t reflect the University’s commitment to research.

“I’m not a fan of the blanket cuts, it’s much more complicated than that ... I understand the budget constraints — this needs to be a very thoughtful process at looking at each one of our centers and institutes,” Cone said. “Our centers and institutes have that outreach arm to connect us with the citizens of North Carolina.”

Bruce Cairns, director of the burn center and faculty chairman, said while his center is largely funded with private donations, he is worried about programs they work with.

“When any program is cut, there is a ripple effect,” Cairns said. “We are impacted by cuts to the School of Medicine, cuts to the School of Government programs and especially by cuts to the data-gathering centers.”

Cairns said he is concerned the legislature doesn’t properly value the programs.

“The people of the state have invested in us so that we can serve them,” he said. “It’s our job to show them that they are getting their money’s worth.”

That’s the point that Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor of research, wants administrators to understand about research centers and institutes.

“These are not hobbies — I think that’s how they are viewed by people outside the University who don’t understand what they are and really how important they are,” said Entwisle, who oversees the 15 cross-disciplinary research centers at UNC.

“I talk a lot about the research because that’s my shtick, but these same centers and institutes are involved in teaching and training and service to Carolina. They’re creating jobs.”

Since June 2008, Entwisle said the research centers and institutes she oversees had 35 percent of their budget cut.

“I think it’s hard on morale,” she said. “I like to think that our researchers are busy doing research and not focused on that. But I can say from a director’s standpoint, it’s very hard.”

James Swenberg, who works with the Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility, said these proposed cuts create a negative environment for researchers.

Though the center is largely shielded from state cuts, Swenberg worries the cuts will affect the reputation of the University’s research centers.

“The University’s budget has been cut severely since 2008, and it just keeps continuing,” said Swenberg. “I don’t think that’s a pretty picture for UNC.”

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