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Tuesday, Oct 22 2013 11:01 PM

DOROTHY LELAND: Shutdown consequences hit public universities hard, too

Now that Congress has finally restored funding to the federal government and raised the debt ceiling for a few more months, it would be tempting to chalk up all the wrangling of recent weeks to "politics as usual" and try to hold on until the next budget crisis looms.

From my perspective as chancellor of UC Merced, I can't emphasize enough how troubling a response that would be. Quite frankly, we must do better if we hope to maintain our standing in an increasingly competitive world. The inability of Congress to agree on long-term budget priorities and keep the wheels of government turning has real consequences. Denial of necessary services, worker furloughs, mandatory budget cuts to vital programs ("sequestration") and growing uncertainty about future funding streams may be doing serious damage to our nation's ability to innovate, create new businesses and grow our economy.

The United States has excelled in these areas largely because of our historic commitment to higher education and research. Our universities attract the brightest minds from around the world, give them the best possible education and unleash them into an environment that encourages and rewards their inventiveness.

At the same time, we invest substantially more each year in research than any other country. Much of this research is carried out at our nation's leading universities, such as the 10 campuses of the UC system.

This process is strongly supported by far-sighted federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, whose funding assistance, in the form of competitive research grants, promotes discovery and invention at our nation's research universities.

One would think these activities would have more than proven their long-term value to the American people. Yet, inexplicably, Congressional intransigence is putting these programs in jeopardy and undermining the work of dedicated researchers across the country. For example, the government shutdown made it difficult for UC Merced scientists to access research sites on federal lands, such as Yosemite National Park, where studies on water supply from mountain runoff will help manage and conserve our increasingly precious water resources in the years ahead.

Worker furloughs meant that documentation required by the federal government to secure research funds could not be processed, and new proposals could not be considered. This, in turn, is making it more difficult to hire and retain qualified researchers, whose livelihood depends on uncertain federal dollars.

Our national research laboratories, many of them managed by the UC system, are feeling the pinch, too. When funds dry up, critical research projects must be suspended and workers sent home. Program reviews must be postponed, forcing schedules to be pushed out and adding unnecessary cost to the equation.

The impact on students, at UC Merced and throughout the country, is also very real. Short-term budget fixes will lead to increasing interest rates and origination fees on federally funded student loans. Excessive debt is already a serious problem for college students and their families. Rising borrowing costs will make it even worse.

This is to say nothing of the hit our country is taking to its reputation as the world's safest harbor for investment. If the nation's credit rating declines and investors seek out other, more secure investment opportunities, the cost of capital will surge and more of our tax dollars will be needed simply to pay interest on the national debt. Opinion polls indicate that most Americans agree on the need to curtail spending and reduce our federal budget deficit. But there must be a better way to accomplish that goal than lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis, each more acrimonious than the last, with little progress on issues of substance.

Congress urgently needs to understand how its partisan standoffs and stopgap funding exercises are hurting our national interest. In a world that's growing flatter and more competitive every day, we need to get past these unseemly political distractions and get on with making our country as strong as it can be.

Dorothy Leland has been chancellor of UC Merced since July 2011.

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