Congress Backs Flat Higher Ed Funding

Legislation would reduce support for research and financial aid in real terms

The U.S. Senate passed a spending bill this weekend that will maintain current levels of funding for financial aid and research through March, a move that will impinge on higher education support due to the current rapid rise in inflation. This financial support may be further reduced if spending cuts arise as a result of the government’s proposed bailout package, which the House rejected yesterday.

President Bush is expected to sign the bill, known as a “continuing resolution,” by tomorrow.

The continuing resolution, which postpones budgetary decisions until after the presidential election to avoid a presidential veto by President Bush, keeps the maximum Pell Grant award level and federal support for research organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy constant, through March 6. If the continuing resolution had not been passed, such decisions would have been completed by October 1.

Taking the rapid pace of inflation into account—a rise of almost 3.5 percentage points since August 2007—this deferment of budget proposals signifies a decrease in real funding.

Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations, called the move “disappointing for those of us who have been working for an increase in NIH funding and other basic research and education funding.”

The resolution continues the trend of inflation erosion that is already causing a strain on campuses where biological research is being conducted, Casey said.

Federal support of research has been declining since 2004, according to Kei Koizumi, director of the research and development budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But Casey said he was encouraged by the priority given to higher education programs in the proposed appropriations bills and in the stimulus bill proposed this weekend by Senate Democrats that included a $1.2-billion increase in NIH funding.

“We do hope that when they turn back to those appropriations bills, we may see some fruition,” Casey said.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly in the House by a vote of 370 to 58 and in the Senate by a vote of 78 to 12.

Higher education experts are also concerned that the high cost of a major federal bailout package could affect discretionary spending on student aid and research funding.

“My fear is that in the long term with a very expensive war, and perhaps a very expensive bailout, and a recession that decreases tax revenues, it will be very hard to get the kind of funding into science and engineering that is absolutely needed,” said Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, who is a member of the Coalition for Life Sciences, which advocates for the NIH budget.

“In a global economy in which advantage depends on innovation and on technology development, I hope that the next president and Congress have the wisdom to understand that the few extra billions needed to keep science and engineering healthy and growing will be more than repaid in benefits,” Hyman added.

Koizumi also said he was concerned that federal support for research could be cut depending on how the proposed bailout package is financed. “Of course, if they are making spending cuts, federal funding for research and higher education could be cut in the new year,” he said.

But Casey said he was hopeful that, despite the economic downturn, the federal government would continue to invest in higher education.

“Clearly there is going to be great competition for all federal expenditures,” he said. “And we hope those that can be defended as building a foundation on which educational growth might foster, like education and research, might be successful even in a constrained budget.”

—Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at


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