Ohio State is preparing for cuts in federal research money of between $27 million and $133 million in 2013.

The poorest students could lose grants and work-study money allowing them to go to college. Research that leads to discoveries in medicine and agriculture and to breakthroughs that bolster the country’s defense and national security could be slowed or altogether derailed.

And public universities that have medical colleges and hospitals could lose millions of Medicare dollars, negatively affecting patients, doctors, and medical students.

That’s what several college leaders say could happen after President Barack Obama and congressional leaders failed to reach a deal to avoid across-the-board spending cuts by the March 1 deadline. Congress ended up without a plan to avert or postpone the cuts—a year and a half in the making—despite the introduction of several last-minute bills.

Even as they pledged a renewed effort to undo the spending cuts retroactively, both parties said the blame rests squarely on the other for any damage the cuts might inflict. There were no indications that either side was wavering from entrenched positions that for weeks had prevented progress on a deal to find a way out: Republicans refusing any deal with more tax revenue—and Democrats snubbing any deal without it.

“None of this is necessary,” Obama said in his weekly radio and internet address March 2. “It’s happening because Republicans in Congress chose this outcome over closing a single wasteful tax loophole that helps reduce the deficit.”

The president said the cuts would cause “a ripple effect across the economy” that would worsen the longer they stay in place, eventually costing more than 750,000 jobs and disrupting the lives of middle-class families.

In the Republican-controlled House, GOP lawmakers washed their hands of the mess, arguing that bills they passed in the last Congress to avert the cuts absolved them of any responsibility. Those bills passed with little to no Democratic support because they did not include any revenue increases, and they were never taken up by the Senate.

Adding to college leaders’ frustration is that no one knows for certain how or when the cuts will be made, because federal agencies have released few details about what they’re calling the “sequestration” process.

“We’re preparing for the worst-case scenario while hoping for the best case,” said Caroline Whitacre, Ohio State University’s vice president for research.

She spent three days on Capitol Hill last week talking to Ohio’s congressional delegates about the impact the cuts would have on the university.

Ohio State is preparing for cuts in federal research money of between $27 million and $133 million in 2013. About $470 million of the $934 million that the university spent on research in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30 came from the federal government.

Ohio State already has seen a 20-percent decrease in National Science Foundation grants this year in anticipation of the mandatory cuts, Whitacre said. And most federal research agencies have at least temporarily halted funding of new projects until they get a clearer picture of the future.

(Next page: More news about the effects of the spending cuts—including on student borrowers)

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