Cuts cause ripple effect

State legislators are poised to slice $29 million from higher education funding, reducing state funding from the current year’s $519 million to $490 million, and there is worry in some circles about how those cuts might impact university research infrastructure.

Of the state’s leading research universities, the University of Colorado is looking at a proposed cut of nearly $11.8 million. Colorado State University could take a hit of about $6.6 million, and the Colorado School of Mines would lose just over $1.3 million.

The expected cuts continue a trend that has plagued higher education in Colorado since the recession started making itself felt in 2008.

State funding to Colorado’s universities and colleges peaked at $706 million in fiscal year 2008-09 and 2009-10, but only by supplementing the state’s money with millions of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) dollars. By fiscal year 2010-11, state funding slipped to $615 million — plus another $29 million in ARRA funds.

The loss of state funding increases the importance of efficiencies that come through joint research collaborations, most notably the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, through which CU, CSU, Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory pool resources in operating research centers focusing on biofuels and biorefining, solar energy and wind power.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver (District 33), who sits on the Senate’s education committee, is concerned about the cuts’ implications for research in Colorado.

“When you think about the roles the universities play in this state, it’s not just about educating the next generation of Coloradans; it’s also that they serve as major economic engines for their communities, through the dollars generated by such things as research, patents, salaries to scientists and support staff,´ said Johnston. “I think that’s a big part of our concern.”

Peter Han, Mines chief of staff, said “The continued decrease in state funding does impact our ability to support research initiatives.

“For example, the decrease in state funding and the uncertainty of the state budget forecast has limited our ability to hire additional faculty to match increased student enrollment. This also limits our ability to react to increased research opportunities in areas that Mines has global recognition.”

Rick Miranda, Provost and Executive Vice President at Colorado State University, said that even though most of the school’s research dollars come from federal agencies and other non-state sources, the contemplated state cuts still pose a threat to the vitality of CSU’s research culture.

“Frankly, I am worried about our ability to compete in research if the state funding continues to erode,´ said Miranda.

The primary resource for writing research grants is faculty, he said, and a shortfall in state funds directly imperils the ability to hire and retain the professors who generate those grants.

“One of the effects of state funding cuts is that everyone has to step up and do more with less,´ said Miranda. “And then, at some point, the ability to do more hits the wall. And one of the things that may hit the wall earlier, rather than later, is research activities.”

CU-Boulder Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture is more optimistic. He said the effects of the cuts would likely be felt “very little” on his campus.

“The research infrastructure here in Boulder is mainly, although not entirely, supported by federal research funds from a large number of agencies,´ said Sture. About 90 federal agencies and labs help finance work at CU, including NASA and the National Institutes of Health. “That funding is fairly stable and durable.”

Still Sen. Johnston remains concerned.

“We’d like to be cautiously optimistic,” Johnston said, “But we know that even if we have seen the worst of it, just maintaining the current levels of funding is going to be problematic.”

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