At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faculty fret about the future of the school’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Thirty miles away, administrators at the state university campus in Lowell worry that research aimed at designing better body armor for soldiers could suffer.
The concerns have emerged because of automatic federal budget cuts that could reduce government funding for research done at educational institutions, spending that totaled about $33.3 billion in 2010, Department of Education statistics show. And the possible cuts add to another anxiety at those schools and others across the country: brain drain.
President Barack Obama and lawmakers failed to agree on a plan to reduce the nation’s deficit that would have avoided the automatic spending cuts, which began to roll out this month. Included in the cuts are 5 percent of the money for programs that fund education research, a Department of Education spokesman said March 15. But because negotiations over how to balance the budget are ongoing, the timing and size of many cuts to be made by government agencies remain unclear.
“One of the questions we don’t know is if agencies will elect to cut funding by not making new grants or cutting back on old grants,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at American Council on Education.
In the meantime, professors are left wondering how many young scientists will become discouraged by domestic funding challenges and either leave for careers abroad or change fields.
At MIT, doctoral candidate Nikolai Begg said he’s lucky the research he’s working on now has corporate sponsorship.
“It’s kind of scary to be hearing that a lot of that support is going away,” he said of government cuts. “How do we keep America technologically relevant has been a question on everybody’s mind. And the sequester only makes that harder.”
(Next page: A closer look at the impact of the sequester on research)