A Message from Dean Matson

How will sequestration impact graduate education?

Steven W. Matson, Dean

Steven W. Matson, Dean

I am frequently asked about the impact of sequestration on graduate education. This is an important question and we do not have all the answers yet. I do, however, have some thoughts and predictions, and I share those with you here.

First, let's define sequestration so we all start from a common understanding. The term budget sequestration (or sequester) refers to automatic spending cuts in specific categories of federal spending. The reductions in spending authority are approximately $85.4 billion during fiscal year 2013 with similar cuts for years 2014 through 2021. The cuts are split evenly (by dollar amounts, not by percentages) between the defense and non-defense categories. While some programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, federal pensions and veterans' benefits are exempt, federal research funding is not. This is one area, along with student financial aid, where sequestration will affect Carolina and have an impact on graduate education.

In fiscal year 2012, $545 million of the $767 million Carolina received in research funding came from federal funds, with a significant fraction of that coming from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Because Carolina receives such a significant amount of federal research funding, support for our graduate students will be affected. Postdoctoral fellows and others supported by research grants will also be impacted, but I suspect the greatest risk lies with graduate students supported by federal research funding.

The initial impact may be felt as early as this summer when graduate students completing their first year of study in the biological, biomedical, physical and in some cases social/behavioral sciences look for mentors to support and guide their doctoral research. In recent months we have seen funding for some existing grants reduced, some renewals not approved, and proposals passed over that might have scored high enough for an award in prior years. Such outcomes will mean fewer positions for graduate assistants, and some students may not be able to find a research assistant position.

However, the more significant impact is likely three-to-five years away. If the sequester is not lifted, cuts will continue to reduce the budgets of federal funding agencies in future years. This will create a climate of uncertainty in which departments may be less willing to invest in and commit to graduate students. If this happens, cohorts of entering graduate students wishing to pursue graduate studies in the impacted areas will shrink. Less groundbreaking research will be done, and promising students thinking about a research career will become discouraged and seek alternate professions. Over the life of the sequester, which continues through fiscal 2021, we will lose a significant portion of the next generation of research scientists as this scenario plays out at Carolina and research universities across the country.

Fortunately, the research infrastructure at Carolina is strong. We are blessed with top-flight faculty and research facilities that compare with the best anywhere in the country. This will ensure a quick recovery if Congress can agree on a budget framework that replaces the sequester and funding for research again becomes a priority.

We can also expect sequestration to have an impact on loans available to graduate students to finance their education. At Carolina, this is likely to affect master's degree-seeking students more profoundly than doctoral students. The sequester will also cause reductions in the state budget which may impact funding provided by the state to the university.

The effects of sequestration on graduate education are insidious and will creep up slowly as the sequester continues. If the federal commitment to research is not restored, critical discoveries will not be made, our economy will lag, and our nation will lose some of its most promising future scientists, engineers and teachers. However, graduate education at Carolina will remain strong even if somewhat diminished in numbers.

Steven W. Matson
Dean, The Graduate School
Professor of Biology
UNC-Chapel Hill