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Election, Automatic Budget Cuts Could Affect Harvard's Research Funding

By Julia K. Dean, Crimson Staff Writer

This is Part II in a series on the presidential election's impact on the issues that Harvard lobbies on. Read Part I on student financial aid and Part III on immigration.

At Harvard, where Congressional appropriations can mean the difference between continuing years’ worth of research and putting a project on ice, the two presidential candidates’ plans for closing the federal deficit could have tremendous consequences.

Harvard received more than $600 million in federal funding for research in fiscal year 2010, according to the University’s annual fiscal report released in 2011.

That funding may be at risk, depending on whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney—who hold disparate views on public funding—wins this November’s presidential election.

Another cut to research money, which has already been diminished by belt-tightening in the wake of the financial crisis, could seriously hamper projects, faculty members said.

“Funding is already short and I am reducing the size of my team and the questions we try to address,” Harvard researcher David T. Scadden wrote in an email.

A reduction in federal funding would have implications for universities across the nation and could even “threaten the preeminence of the US in biomedical research and innovation as it depends on a pipeline of talented people with bold ideas,” Scadden wrote.


While both candidates have repeatedly emphasized their support for scientific research, their platforms reveal differences in their plans for providing that aid.

In previous statements, Obama has said that he wants to double scientific research funding. In his 2012 budget proposal, he increased funds for the National Institutes of Health by three percent, to $32 billion for basic and applied biomedical research.

Romney’s platform calls for budget cuts to research funding and to agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, stating that research should be privatized instead.

Scientific American asked the two candidates a series of questions regarding their positions on research and innovation in America. In the interview, Obama reaffirmed his promise to increase government spending on research: “I strongly support investments in research and development that help spur America innovation and proposed a goal that, as a country, we invest more than 3 percent of our GDP in public and private research and development.”

Romney repeated his pro-private industry stance: “Good public policy must also ensure that federal research is being amplified in the private sector, and that major breakthroughs are able to make the leap from the laboratory to the marketplace.”


Before the next presidential inauguration, a series of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts—known as sequestration—are set to slash research funding by 8.2 percent beginning on Jan. 2, 2013.

The choice of a president, as well as the outcome of the Congressional elections, could set the tone for how Congress addresses the looming sequestration during the waning days of its session, said Suzanne Day, Harvard’s director of federal relations.

The next commander-in-chief could ask Congress to balance its budget by means other than sequestration, avoiding the automatic cuts. The Obama White House has said that it does not support sequestration, and Romney has spoken out against it as well.

But if Congress cannot avoid the sequester, Harvard will face an immediate reduction in research funding for the current fiscal year, according to Kevin Casey, Harvard’s chief lobbyist and vice president for public affairs and communications.

This summer, University President Drew G. Faust co-signed a letter along with more than 100 fellow university presidents addressed to President Obama and Congress. Their missive urged the legislators to overcome partisan differences so that they could prevent the cuts that sequestration would bring.

“Sequestration is an undiscerning and blunt budget tool that would substantially harm our nation’s future by blindly slashing valuable investments in education and scientific research,” the letter read, ending by stating, “As national leaders in higher education, we urge you to show America and the world that our country’s political system is capable of solving serious problems.”

Harvard is now working with other leading research universities, including Stanford, Michigan, and the University of Texas, as well as industries that benefit from academic research, to make a collective argument on behalf of the university-government research partnership

The University has not shied away from urging political action to preserve science funding before—notably, then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine said in his 1995 Commencement address that Harvard’s research was “seriously at risk” and urged those assembled to vote against candidates who would propose cuts to research.


Harvard academics have utilized federal money since the early years of the Cold War, when the American government, eager to remain competitive with other nations, began distributing funding to research universities.

During those years, Harvard attributed much of its own growth to funding from the federal government. Today, a significant portion of Harvard’s federal funding flows through the National Institutes of Health, a government-funded entity that doles out cash for science research.

If Congress does not act, sequestration will require an immediate 8.2 percent reduction in the agency's budget, and Casey said "that becomes almost impossible to manage for the National Institutes of Health."

Scadden believes that government agencies should support university research because scholars’ vital studies may not be attractive to private companies.

“Basic research is critically dependent on the federal government as it is too far from a product that can be sold to be of interest to companies,” he said. Yet such experiments, he said, can form “the basis for innovations that have had enormous impact on the well-being of society.”

Casey agreed that academic research can lead to significant contributions to society, even monetary ones, in the long run.

“There are so many competing, well-deserving programs in the federal budget, but not all of them are ones that pay back in the way that we believe research and education do over time,” Casey said. “The longer view would say that the young men and women who are getting educated are going to be paying more in taxes over time.”

—Nicholas P. Fandos contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Julia K. Dean can be reached at

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