Washington state jobs, universities vulnerable to D.C's fiscal cliff

In a state where agriculture and health are important job creators, federal research cuts could have widespread effects.
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A scene from the University of Washington campus

In a state where agriculture and health are important job creators, federal research cuts could have widespread effects.

Echoing concerns heard around the country, University of Washington and Washington State University say the outcome of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations in D.C. could do significant damage to their research and key sectors of the state economy.

Without any agreement between President Barack Obama and Congress, cuts in excess of 8 percent for non-defense discretionary spending, which includes most areas of research, would begin going into effect Jan. 1. At the same time, tax increases would go into effect, in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. 

Officials at the state's two major research universities said that automatic budget reductions could have major effects on the amount of research done in such areas as health, agriculture and clean energy. 

Christy Gullion, director of the UW's Office of Federal Relations, said the first year of cuts would be expected to reduce the university  share of federal research grants by about $83 million. That's out of a little more than $1 billion in federally financed work the UW did during the 2012 fiscal year. In that scenario, she said, the overall economic impact for the Seattle area could be the loss of 1,500 jobs, both at the university and in organizations that do business with it, likely over the course of six to nine months.
The UW's focus in talking to members of Congress is on protecting National Institutes of Health spending, which is particularly important to the school's nationally prominent health research programs, Gullion said.
WSU's federal relations director, Glynda Becker, said the university has significant research in areas where spending would be cut 7.5 to 9 percent. The outcome of the fiscal talks, Becker said, "is going to affect our ability to continue the research that we are doing in agriculture, in clean energy and engineering." She didn't have estimates for the likely losses, but said most of the funding for such work comes from federal grants.
Both universities pointed to the relevance of their research to the larger state and regional economies. Becker said agriculture is generally one of the top two performing sectors in the state, and WSU research has helped develop such key state crops as wheat, apples and cherries. WSU research has also been tied to the entire development of the state's wine industry, from crops to wine making. The UW's research strengths have helped develop not just medical institutions but also biomedical products and firms. 
Beyond any impact on the UW, Gullion said, federal cuts in research could hurt other Seattle institutions, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research and Seattle Children's Research Institute. A recent Associated Press report in Oregon pointed to similar concerns for universities and health-research institutions there.
Other higher education and scientific organizations around the nation have painted similar pictures of potential damage to research. In a paper, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science said that, although private sector research has grown in recent years, federal support remains critical, especially in the more fundamental areas of science likely to fuel longer-term advances. Meanwhile, the organization points out, other nations have been gearing up their research investments.
Both the UW and WSU officials said they had found members of the state's congressional delegation very interested in learning about and addressing their concerns. Gullion and Becker pointed too to key and growing leadership roles for Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who is expected to chair the Budget Committee, and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, recently elevated to the fourth highest post in the GOP House leadership. Gullion said all members of the state's delegation have taken an interest in health and that, over the years, Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell have been champions of National Institutes of Health programs along with Republican Rep. Dave Reichert. 

Despite some rosy assessments for a D.C. accord after the election, it doesn't appear that coming to an agreement will be easy or quick. Gullion said that Tuesday was the first time she heard Murray's staffers talking about working on the issue right up to Christmas, a prospect many in Congress had hoped to avoid. Further,  she said, university faculty have already noticed federal agencies acting more cautiously in committing to support research.

There is one scenario in which a congressional-White House agreement could hurt higher education, health and other domestic programs even more severely than under the current scenario for automatic cuts. That would be if an agreement spared Defense Department spending from scheduled cuts, forcing other programs to be slashed by even greater percentages.


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