The Sequester: How Will It Affect the University Community?

Kent Springfield, director of federal government relations, explains how the sequester could impact research and financial aid.

February 27, 2013

The looming budget cuts known as the “sequester” take effect Friday unless Congress acts. Kent Springfield, director of federal government relations, spoke with George Washington Today about what the sequester is and how it could hurt the university’s research efforts.

Q: What is the sequester?
A: The sequester is a decade-long series of across-the-board, automatic spending cuts set to take effect this Friday. These cuts directly impact day-to-day government operations, including funding for scientific research and student aid. They were passed in the Budget Control Act of 2011 as part of an effort to force Congress to reach a deal to reduce the deficit.

Q: Is Congress likely to reach a deal by Friday to avoid the sequester?
A: At this point, it’s very unlikely. However, we are hopeful that a deal to avert the sequester can be reached in the months ahead. 

Q: What will get cut as part of the sequester?
A: More than $85 billion in cuts will occur over the next seven months alone if the sequester takes effect. The cuts include defense, domestic programs and even some entitlement programs, like Medicare. While no programs will be eliminated, the sequester reduces the amount of money available to them. The cuts will continue each year over the next decade for a total of $1.2 trillion. The university community will primarily see these cuts in two areas—scientific research and student aid. Over the long term, these deep cuts would irreparably harm country’s scientific competitiveness in the world, and limit student access here at home.

Q: Will the cuts affect students’ federal financial aid?
A: Most financial aid cuts won’t be felt immediately. GI Bill benefits—the largest source of federal grant aid at GW—are exempt from the cuts. Pell grants are exempt from the sequester for the first year; however, the long-term health of the program will be imperiled if the cuts continue. Other financial aid programs—such as Federal Work Study and the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant—will see reductions starting in the fall semester. Origination, or processing, fees for student loans will also increase as a result of the sequester.

Q: How will the sequester affect research?
A: The sequester will reduce the funding available to major research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The White House has said, for example, that the NSF will award 1,000 fewer grants by September if the sequester takes effect. Faculty members rely on these agencies to fund research that creates new knowledge and innovations in their scientific fields. So a reduction in the size or number of grants to faculty will limit and slow important research efforts.

Each federal agency has a slightly different situation, and many will have the flexibility to address the cuts to their grant programs differently. The National Institutes of Health has said that it will reduce funding levels for non-competing continuation grants and will make fewer competitive awards. Each center and institute within the NIH will have some freedom to decide how to proceed.

Q: What is the university’s position on the sequester?
A: The university has consistently opposed the sequester and urged Congress to pass a balanced solution as soon as possible to help mitigate any harmful effects that may stem from temporary cuts. Jeffrey Akman, vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, along with deans from Georgetown and Howard universities, wrote an editorial recently in the Washington Post calling for an end to the sequester.

Additionally, to highlight what’s at stake, two GW student researchers recently filmed a video for the Science Coalition’s campaign, “America’s Research Community Speaks Out.”

Q: What can people do about this?
A:  Concerned community members can call their members of Congress or sign some of the active petitions, such as those organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science or Stand with Science. Our political leaders won’t change course on the sequester unless they hear from the students, researchers and countless other Americans who are impacted by these cuts.

America’s Research Community Speaks Out