The region's top research universities stand to lose tens of millions of dollars this year in federal grant money to the budget battle underway in Washington.
There are many unknowns, but schools such as Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are nervously watching and waiting to see how a handful of federal agencies handle sequestration the automatic federal spending cuts that went into effect this month.
All they know now is that those agencies including the National Institutes for Health and its massive $30.9 billion research pot have to trim their budgets by 5 percent. Exactly how that's going to happen is unclear.
"Information is coming out slowly," said Evan Kharasch, Washington University's vice chancellor for research.
The school gets the bulk 77 percent of its $620 million research funding through the federal government. Most of it comes from the NIH, though it also pulls in money from the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies.
But even though everyone knows how much the agencies must trim, there's no easy way to know how those cuts will play out on a campus- by-campus basis, Kharasch said.
"It's really not possible to simply do the arithmetic," he said.
That's because each of the agencies will get to decide how they go about balancing their budgets as part of this overall effort to cut $85 billion in federal spending.
The National Institutes of Health, for example, already has cut its current grants to 90 percent funding. And the agency may award fewer new grants this year.
Other agencies may decide to prioritize some research projects, meaning certain grants could be cut more severely than others.
And that's making it difficult for schools such as the University of Illinois to make plans.
"Until you get rulings from the individual agencies, there's not a whole lot that can be done," said Randy Kangas, vice president for planning and budgeting for the three-campus system.
The system anticipates losing $40 million to $65 million this year, with up to $46 million of that coming from the Urbana- Champaign campus.
And with some jobs on campus tied directly to research grants, Kangas said it is likely that positions will be lost along the way. …