FAIRBANKS — When Carla Beam prepared a report on the so-called “fiscal cliff” for the University of Alaska Board of Regents in December, she found unexpected inspiration in a Looney Tunes clip. Wile E. Coyote’s legs would keep churning in the old cartoons, whether he was running off a ledge or still had the ground beneath him.
Today it looks like a good metaphor for UA, which will need to work harder to claim its share from a shrinking pool of federal dollars.
Beam, the vice president of university relations, said sequestration hasn’t brought a cliff as much as a “changed environment” for federal agencies. The funding pie still remains, but amid an ongoing stalemate in Congress about spending, it’ll almost certainly be smaller than it used to be.
To combat the loss of federal dollars, Beam said, UA plans to study how it can be more competitive as grants become scarcer. She said UA’s lobbying firm is in the process of preparing an “expertise book” to determine where the system should focus its research requests. UA also plans to work more closely with Alaska’s congressional delegation to identify programs the government is eager to fund.
Beam said UA has an opportunity to outduel other universities in areas like Arctic research, energy and climate change. She said the system can also tout its researchers as “masters of disaster,” with expertise in earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.
“What do we have at the university in the research arena that’s valuable to the rest of the country?” she said. “Where can we compete more effectively in a smaller pie?”
Of UA’s three main campuses, the University of Alaska Fairbanks likely will be affected the most. About $120 million in federal grants is delivered to UAF from various federal agencies, tops in the system. But how the cuts will manifest themselves is still uncertain.
Because those federal grants often run in three-year cycles, UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers said, sequester won’t have much effect on campus in the short term. He said the most recent budget cycle saw a barely perceptible decline in funding.
In a year or two, when tightened budgets for federal research grants start to become a factor, he said, UAF will probably begin to feel the pinch.
“The pipeline’s getting shorter, is the way I look at it,” Rogers said.
UAF hasn’t been spared completely in the early months of sequestration. The Alaska Volcano Observatory will have its funding from the U.S. Geological Survey cut in half on June 1, costing the organization at UAF’s Geophysical Institute $500,000.
AVO Coordinating Scientist Jeff Freymueller said that will result in lost funding for about 10 UAF employees who receive part of their salaries from USGS. AVO also will do without two graduate student positions it had in recent years and will stop its seismic monitoring program.
The funding pinch isn’t an entirely new development, although the drop-off next month will be much steeper. The elimination of federal earmarks has already made federal funds scarcer than they used to be, Beam said.
In weeks like this — when two volcanoes are active in the Aleutians — AVO personnel can feel the effects of those depleted resources.
“Our capacity to deal with a lot of things going on at once is definitely less than it was five years ago,” Freymueller said.
Since funding arrives through numerous agencies and grants, Beam said, most cuts will be less dramatic. She said the total federal grant appropriations in a few years will probably reflect the picture more accurately than any single department.
“It’s like evolution,” Beam said. “It’s going to be too slow to see happening.”