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Government shutdown over, but sequestration's toll now taking effect

Fall foilage at Case Western Reserve University. (Photo by Sarah Jane Tribble)
Fall foilage at Case Western Reserve University. (Photo by Sarah Jane Tribble)

It's a beautiful autumn day at Case Western Reserve University.

The sunlight casts a golden glow over the orange- and yellow-leafed trees. Students bustle to their classes and labs.

This idyllic scene embodies the image of the college experience at its best: focused academic and scientific pursuit unencumbered by the distractions of everyday society. Behind the scenes, though, distractions are very real to people like Dr. Stan Gerson, whose office is just inside one of the older brick buildings. As director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, Gerson spent much of the past year calling members of Congress and asking his staff to do the same.

He hoped that they could help lawmakers understand the toll taken when the federal government cuts programs.

"It's real jobs and real people," Gerson says.

Over the past decade, Case and other research universities have seen a steady drop in federal funding. Then, earlier this year, the federal sequestration hit - automatic, across the board budget cuts passed in 2011 to force Congress to negotiate a deficit reduction agreement.

The idea then was that both Republicans and Democrats would hate the cuts so much that they wouldn't stick - a compromise would be reached.

But that didn't happen. Sequestration began in March, and research institutions across the country are out millions of dollars as a result.

Dr. Max Wicha is a founding director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. He says the reduced funding due to sequestration is already having a tangible impact.
"We actually have researchers whose grants would have been funded by the National Cancer Institute that clearly were not funded just because of the sequester… and these were several that had had research labs that were funded for many years and essentially have to close their labs because of this," Wicha says.

Case, like Michigan, receives some of the biggest federal grants in the U.S. for research.

Of the roughly $400 million Case spends on research annually, about 80 percent comes from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Dept. of Defense, and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Case's cancer center offers an example of how sequestration funding is slowly squeezing the budget. This summer, news came that the center's 5-year operational grant fell by $6 Million.

"It's undoubtedly the case over an 18-month period that there will be a smaller workforce in our school and our university. Just because, where else are the dollars going to come from?" Gerson says.

Case isn't planning staff layoffs but they are more selectively filling positions, and faculty members are being encouraged to consider flexible hours. Gerson has also noticed that labs on the campus aren't hiring as many graduate students.

And it's that lack of job creation that is a key reason sequestration should be readdressed in this latest round of budget talks, says U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who supports restoring research funding at Case and other institutions.

"We want to figure out a way to work through this sequestration we've brought the budget deficit down significantly. Economic growth is what produces budget surpluses," Brown says.

To offset the cuts in federal spending, Case's leaders have begun marketing research programs for commercial investment. The effort is gaining traction. But the amount raised so far is only a fraction of what will be lost annually if the sequester continues.

For the more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students at Case, the drama of Congress' latest budget battle may seem remote - secondary to their own academic challenges

But for Case's medical researchers, the daily news out of Washington is a constant reminder that the future of their work is, at best, uncertain.